By Jan Worth-Nelson
As the coronavirus pandemic occupies and overwhelms much of the public’s attention in Flint, another controversy — still painful and unresolved in many ways, affecting almost every aspect of Flint life — appears about to create news again on top of everything else in Vehicle City.
The sixth anniversary of what is considered to be the date that began the Flint water crisis – April 25, 2014, when a switch flipped by then-mayor Dayne Walling put the city on Flint River water – is arriving this week.
As that date approaches, two news releases from State Attorney General Dana Nessel and an explosive story by investigative reporters Jordan Chariton and Jenn Dize at VICE.com suggest the Flint water crisis story is generating yet another round of developments.
First, Nessel issued a brief statement ahead of the anniversary, affirming her confidence in ongoing investigations into the crisis, stating that the work of her designated team — state Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy — “has not been and will not be impeded by time or this current public health crisis.”
Then Hammoud and Worthy issued a statement suggesting the issue of the statute of limitations on prosecutions of alleged criminal acts running out next week is “a misconception” and that their work continues.
“Criminal statutes of limitations vary depending on the offense and the date of the alleged criminal act,” their joint statement read. “Though we cannot comment on the specifics of our investigation, we remain on track, and we are delivering on our commitment to the people of Flint,” the statement concluded.
As EVM documented in December, 2019, the AG opened an office in Flint staffed with a 22-member team of lawyers and support staff. While the opening of that office on a top floor of the state office building was regarded as a strong sign of commitment to ongoing investigations, few to no results have surfaced in the intervening months.
But as the wait continues for action on the AG front, a bombshell report has just emerged in VICE.com by investigative journalist Jordan Chariton, a frequent presence in Flint throughout much of the crisis, and his investigative partner Jenn Dize.
They claim they have proof Gov. Rick Snyder “knew about Flint’s toxic water and lied about it.”
The intro tagline to the story, reportedly based on interviews with former Flint Mayor Karen Weaver among other sources, asserts,
“Six years after the city of Flint, Michigan, began using a toxic water source that sickened its residents, VICE uncovered payoffs, the silencing of a whistleblower, a shady financial deal, a coverup, and the former governor who presided over it all.”
According to the piece, in January, 2019, Snyder appealed to Weaver to intervene on his behalf with the late Elijah Cummings to “back off” on investigating him. They write:
“After a VICE investigation spanning a year and a half across the state of Michigan, overwhelming evidence indicates Snyder had good reason to worry.
“Hundreds of confidential pages of documents obtained by VICE, along with emails and interviews, reveal a coordinated, five-year cover-up overseen by Snyder and his top officials to prevent news of Flint’s deadly water from going public—while there was still time to save lives—and then limit the damage after the crisis made global headlines.”
Weaver was defeated by Sheldon Neeley by about 200 votes last November in a upset mayoral election.
Snyder and several others close to him never were among the 15 indicted in the series of actions taken in the years following the crisis by then-Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. Charges still were being pursued into 2018, when Snyder left office and Schuette, the Republican candidate for governor, was defeated by Gretchen Whitmer.
Following Snyder’s departure, as the newly-elected attorney general, Nessel announced the discovery of “millions” of previously unknown documents relevant to the water crisis.
In response, in June, 2019, Nessel and her team controversially dropped all criminal charges against eight central figures in the water crisis. They stated because so much possible evidence had not been available, the prosecutions were incomplete and could not be regarded as legitimate. They pledged to start over.
As the December EVM piece summarized, under Schuette’s investigations–shepherded by special prosecutor Todd Flood who was later fired by Nessel — “…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.”
As detailed in a June 2019 EVM story, the incendiary move of dropping the indictments, which came without warning to the residents of a city beleaguered and by what many have called “poisoning by policy,” prompted fiery responses from local politicians and a host of weary “water warriors,” as they have come to be called.
According to the VICE piece,
“Snyder and his administration were investigated by a team led by special prosecutor Todd Flood from 2016 to 2019. The team concluded that the administration had “committed conspiracies of ongoing crimes, like an organized crime unit,” a source with knowledge of the probe told VICE.
“But before a case against Snyder could develop, the state’s newly appointed attorney general, Dana Nessel, fired top prosecutors and investigators pursuing the case.” [Editor’s Note: Nessel was elected, not appointed]
As summarized in the June, 2019 EVM story, “The eight against whom charges were dropped represented some of the most significant indictments from the debacle, which is said to have exposed thousands of children, elderly and those with compromised immune systems to lead toxicity. The crisis also has been implicated in 12 deaths attributed to Legionnaire’s Disease.
“Those eight are former emergency managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, Department of Environmental Quality official Patrick Cook, Former Flint Department of Public Works director Howard Croft, former Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, DHHS officials Nancy Peeler and Robert Scott, and former Chief Medical Officer for the state Eden Wells.”
Here is the Hammoud/Worthy statement in its entirety:
“As we approach six years since the water switch in Flint, we must remember the ongoing struggle of the people of Flint, and their resiliency in the face of a man-made disaster that will span generations. But they did not volunteer to serve as a cautionary tale of government gone wrong. This fate was imposed on them by a series of actions and inactions that created the historic injustice of the Flint Water Crisis.
“From the outset, our team committed to a complete investigation of the Flint Water Crisis, using all investigative means at our disposal. We committed to professional prosecution of anyone criminally responsible for this man-made crisis and the resulting death, injury and trauma experienced by the people of Flint. Despite the challenges posed to our state by the COVID-19 pandemic, the current state of emergency will not prevent us from pursuing justice.
“April 25, 2014, is a significant date in the history of the Flint Water Crisis. However, we want to correct the misconception that April 25, 2020 is the deadline to bring charges against those who may be criminally liable. Criminal statutes of limitations vary depending on the offense and the date of the alleged criminal act. Though we cannot comment on the specifics of our investigation, we remain on track, and we are delivering on our commitment to the people of Flint.”
Banner photo of water crisis march in February, 2016 with activist Melissa Mays and Jesse Jackson (Photo by Nic Custer)
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.