5 Michigan officials charged in death in Flint water crisis

Includes head of state's health department
Nick Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, testifies about Flint’s tainted water crisis.
Nick Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, testifies about Flint’s tainted water crisis.

FLINT, Mich. — By the time Robert Skidmore, an 85-year-old former auto industry worker, died in late 2015, officials had seen signs for months that Flint was wrestling with outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease, prosecutors say. Yet despite a wave of such cases in 2014 and 2015, no public warning was issued until early 2016.

By then, it was too late for Skidmore and 11 others: a failing so egregious, prosecutors say, that it amounted to involuntary manslaughter.

Five officials in Michigan, including the head of the state’s health department, were charged Wednesday. It is the closest investigators have come to directly blaming officials for the deaths and illnesses that occurred when a water contamination crisis enveloped this city.

The tainted water has been tied to lead poisoning in children and prompted officials to begin a costly, yearslong process of replacing pipes all over the city. Even now, officials recommend that only filtered tap water be consumed, and many residents say they can only trust bottled water, given false assurances they once received from state and local officials.

The latest charges reached farther than before into Michigan’s state government, affecting two Cabinet-level officials in the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder and leaving open the possibility that the investigation would go higher still.

Nick Lyon, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office, felonies that could lead to as much as 20 years in prison. Dr. Eden V. Wells, the chief medical executive for the department, was charged with obstruction of justice and lying to a peace officer, and could face up to seven years if convicted. They are among 15 current and former state and local officials facing criminal charges as a 17-month investigation into Flint’s tainted water supply continues.

Before Wednesday, the criminal charges had focused mainly on the lead contamination and, in counts like misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty, on ways that state and city workers had failed to do their jobs.

“The Flint water crisis was and is a failure of leadership,” said an investigative report issued Wednesday by Bill Schuette, Michigan’s attorney general. “A cause of the breakdown in state governmental management was a fixation, a preoccupation, with data, finances and costs, instead of placing the health, safety and welfare of citizens first.”

Besides, the report found, a solution for Flint’s essential water problem was maddeningly simple, and cheap: The addition of common anti-corrosion chemicals could have cost the financially struggling city only $200 a day.

But officials failed to take that step when they switched the city’s water supply in early 2014, the investigators said, partly to save money. Residents began complaining of puzzling colors, putrid odors and an array of rashes and illnesses, which eventually included Legionnaires’ disease.

In charging Lyon, and four others who already faced other charges in the water case, with involuntary manslaughter, Schuette said they had failed to properly alert the public about increases in Legionnaires’ cases, allowing the problem to continue and withholding crucial information from residents, who might have avoided the water had they known.

An examination of government emails from 2014, 2015 and 2016 revealed that officials were aware of the pattern of Legionnaires’ cases, but that they failed to act swiftly on the revelations and tended to become mired in jurisdictional battles over protocol and responsibility.

Lyon knew of the Legionnaires’ outbreak by late January 2015, court documents claim, but did not notify the public for another year. At one point, the documents allege, he said that “he can’t save everyone” and that “everyone has to die of something.”

The charging documents pointed in particular to the death of Skidmore, the former autoworker, on Dec. 13, 2015. Schuette said that Skidmore had been tending to his ailing wife in mid-2015 when he grew ill, apparently from the water.

According to the charges, Lyon’s “acts and failure to act resulted in the death of at least one person,” Skidmore. The documents asserted that Lyon “willfully disregarded the deadly nature” of the Legionnaires’ outbreak and “exhibited gross negligence when he failed to alert the public about the deadly outbreak and by taking steps to suppress information illustrating obvious and apparent harms that were likely to result in serious injury.”

Defense lawyers for Lyon called the claims baseless and said they were confident in their client’s case. One challenge for prosecutors may be proving a direct link between Flint’s corroding water pipes and Legionnaires’ disease, legal experts said. Some scientists have suggested that the corrosion may have allowed Legionella bacteria to thrive in the water supply during warm summer months.

“The true facts simply do not support the prosecution’s claims,” the defense lawyers, Chip Chamberlain and Larry Willey, said in a written statement. “This case appears to be a misguided theory looking for facts that do not exist.”

Snyder, too, issued a statement of support for Lyons and Wells, and appeared to criticize the legal process, noting that other state employees had been charged more than a year ago but had yet to be tried in court.

“That is not justice for Flint, nor for those who have been charged,” Snyder said. “Director Lyon and Dr. Wells have been and continue to be instrumental in Flint’s recovery. They have my full faith and confidence, and will remain on duty at DHHS.”

Schuette, a Republican, is widely seen as a possible candidate for governor in 2018. He declined to say whether the investigation might lead to charges against Snyder, though he emphasized that it was continuing and that the investigative report issued Wednesday was an “interim” look at the Flint case. He said that investigators had tried unsuccessfully to interview Snyder, who is barred by term limits from running for re-election, but would not elaborate.

“We only file criminal charges when evidence of probable cause to commit a crime has been established, and we are not filing charges at this time,” Schuette said.

Skidmore, whose death is at the center of the five counts of involuntary manslaughter issued Wednesday, was found to have Legionnaires’ disease in June 2015, after he went to a hospital with pneumonialike symptoms.

“It’s a very tragic story,” Schuette said, adding later, “The family had to bury their mother and their father.”

Skidmore’s wife of more than six decades died only weeks after he became ill, and Skidmore continued to fight his symptoms on top of grief, his family said.

“Grandma died. Six months later, after bouncing between the hospital, home care and back, he passed away,” Megan Skidmore Cuttitta, his granddaughter, said. “Each time he went to the hospital, he’d get better, but each time he came home, he got worse.”

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