Former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and eight other former officials could face jail time in the Flint water crisis that led to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, resulting in the deaths of 12 people. The state levied an array of charges against the former officials, ranging from neglect of duty to involuntary manslaughter.
The charges were announced in a news conference on Thursday. Former Gov. Rick Snyder faces two misdemeanor counts of willful neglect of duty and faces up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine if he’s convicted. He has pleaded “not guilty” to the charges.
Snyder’s attorney, Brian Lennon said the charges were “wholly without merit,” and called them an “outrageous political persecution”. Snyder’s lawyers are confident that he would be exonerated if this case goes to trial.
“These unjustified allegations do nothing to resolve a painful chapter in the history of our state,” Lennon said. “Today’s actions merely perpetrate an outrageous political persecution.”
The charges, filed by the Michigan attorney general, were a renewed effort to hold public officials accountable for the 2014 decision to temporarily get drinking water from the Flint River. The water contained contaminants that leached lead from pipes, polluting supplies to thousands in the majority-Black, rust-belt city.
The contaminated water led to two outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease, a serious type of pneumonia caused by bacteria.
The state prosecutors emphasized they had pursued the evidence without favor to some of the state’s most powerful figures.
“The people of Flint continue to suffer from the catastrophic failure of public officials at all levels of government who trampled upon their trust and evaded accountability for far too long,” said Fadwa Hammoud, the state’s solicitor general. “Government power is not granted as a blank check. It is borrowed by those who swear an oath to faithfully discharge their duties in service of the people.”
Former state health director Nicholas Lyon and Eden Wells, the state’s former chief medical executive, were charged with nine counts of involuntary manslaughter related to deaths stemming from the crisis, court records show. Through their attorneys, both denied the charges, which are felonies that potentially carry 15-year prison terms.
Others faced a range of felonies and misdemeanors including neglect of duty, misconduct, perjury, false statements, and extortion. The charges resulted from obscuring health data, providing misinformation about water quality, and threatening a research team that was trying to determine the source of the Legionnaires’ outbreak.
The investigation was paused and then relaunched in 2019, based on what authorities said at the time was improper influence exerted by state officials and the law firms representing them. Michigan agreed to pay $600 million into a victim’s compensation fund last year for residents who were exposed to the contaminated water.
Flint’s water supply was switched back to water sourced from Lake Huron in 2015, but by then the city’s water quality had already been compromised. Snyder declared a state of emergency in the surrounding area, Genesee County, in 2016.