By Harold C. Ford
“The Flint water crisis is not over.”
–Fadwa Hammoud, Michigan Solicitor General, Dec. 19, 2019
In front of several dozen citizens and a scrum of media, and with a panoramic view of the Flint River some five stories below, Michigan Attorney General (AG) Dana Nessel rolled out a large team of lawyers and support staff at a new office in Flint on Dec. 19. The office, a first of its kind in Flint, is located at the State of Michigan Office Building, 125 E. Union Street.
Newly elected Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley introduced Nessel. “She said one of those commitments to this community was about delivering justice,” Neeley said.
“I want to make sure that our criminal team can utilize these premises because they have a lot of work ahead of them,” Nessel stated. “You’re not going to have to go to Lansing to see somebody from the Department of Attorney General. The Department of Attorney General is going to come to you here in Flint.”
Large legal team and support staff:
Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud introduced a 22-member legal team and support staff. “Words are only meaningful when they are backed up by action, and today is action,” she said.
The AG’s team included: two victim advocates “to be rooted in this community as advocates for your needs and to be a bridge to your government”; eight attorneys; one member of a “public integrity unit”; five investigators; a senior management assistant; three data analysts; and a communications specialist.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, not present at the event, was introduced as a “partner in this investigation.” Worthy headed up the prosecution team when charges were dropped against the final eight water crisis defendants in June 2019.
Hammoud also thanked the police departments of Dearborn and Detroit. “This has really been a statewide and a team effort,” she said.
“If we’re doing the work of government faithfully, our work should continue even after our investigation,” said Hammoud, signaling a new phase in Flint’s water story. “This incredible community is a priority and our hope is that our actions will say that even louder.”
Despite the high profile ribbon cutting ceremony, Nessel and her team members have been tight-lipped about their next steps with regard to water crisis prosecutions. “A lot of questions you’ll have, we’ll not be able to answer,” said Hammoud.
Nor does the AG’s website offer up clues about where it’s headed. Nearly all of the press releases, memos, and reports, news clips, and other informational items currently posted were placed there during the reign of former AG Bill Schuette and are dated from 2011 through 2016.
The site reminds the reader that a total of 51 criminal charges were filed against 15 state and local officials in connection with the water crisis, in addition to a civil suit brought against multi-national corporation Veolia and Texas-based LAN. However, not a single person served a single day of incarceration for offenses committed during the water debacle.
A statement by Fadwa and Worthy at the time of the June 2019 dismissals attempted to explain the restart:
“Legitimate criminal prosecutions require complete investigations. Upon assuming responsibility of this case, our team of career prosecutors and investigators had immediate and grave concerns…After a complete evaluation, our concerns were validated. Contrary to accepted standards of criminal investigation and prosecution, all available evidence was not pursued.”
Conversely, that same June 2019 statement by Fadwa and Worthy also indicated that their prosecutorial team had obtained electronic devices and uncovered millions of documents that were previously overlooked.
Nessel signaled intent all along
A review of Nessel’s public statements shows her intent to pursue prosecutions all along.
In 2016, during her campaign for the AG office, she told listeners of WDET’s “Detroit Today”, “Whether or not there are bad actors that should have been charged or not, including the governor, I think that has to be reevaluated and reexamined.”
After taking office, Nessel issued a public statement on June 28, 2019 that read, in part: “As essential as it is for the people of Flint to have their questions answered, it is equally important that they are assured they will receive justice.”
It was noteworthy that the first attorney introduced to the public by Hammoud on Dec. 19 was Molly Kettler, a principal attorney in the Wayne County prosecutor’s office headed up by Worthy. Kettler arrives at her new task with an impressive prosecutorial record in southeast Michigan spanning more than two decades.
Another Detroit-area attorney, David Cripps, told the Detroit News, “She’s a zealous advocate for the prosecutor’s office…She is smart on her feet. She’s well prepared and puts her blood into a case.”
And Kettler has roots in Flint and mid-Michigan. She served as office manager for Michael Moore’s Michigan Voice in the mid-1980s alongside this writer. She has degrees from Michigan State University and Howard University School of Law.
A quote from Martin Luther King presently displayed at Kettler’s Twitter site reads, “The time is always right to do what is right.”
Flint as an “arsenal of democracy”
In an interview with East Village Magazine, Flint water activist Mike Haley hinted the time might be right for a new round of prosecutions.
April 2020 will mark the sixth anniversary of Flint’s infamous water switch. Barring new legislation or legal maneuvering, the statute of limitations for Flint water prosecutions is believed to be early in 2020.
“The Flint water crisis can make Flint the ‘arsenal of democracy’ for a second time,” Haley said with obvious reference to Flint’s manufacturing role during World War II in the 1940s.
“It was Bill Schuette’s strategy to blame low-hanging fruit in the departments of Environmental Equality and Health and Human Services and not more powerful decision-makers of the state bureaucracy (such as former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder),” Haley said.
Haley suggested a new round of prosecutions may target fruit hanging higher on the tree. “The voters wanted a ‘tough nerd’,” he recollected, “and this ‘tough nerd’ (Snyder) poisoned 100,000 people.”
EVM Staff Writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.