DETROIT (Reuters) – Michigan’s former governor, former health director and seven others were charged on Thursday with crimes stemming from lead contamination of the city of Flint’s water supply as prosecutors detailed the findings of a yearslong investigation.
Nick Lyon, former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and Eden Wells, who was the state’s chief medical executive, were each charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the deaths of nine people who caught Legionnaires’ disease.
Former Governor Rick Snyder was charged with two misdemeanor counts of willful neglect of duty for his role in a debacle that afflicted the predominantly African-American city and became emblematic of racial inequality in the United States.
Lyon, Wells and Snyder have indicated they plan to fight the charges. They were among the nine defendants arraigned on Thursday on a total of 42 criminal counts in Genesee County courts.
The charges are the culmination of a yearslong criminal investigation that ran parallel to civil litigation. The civil proceedings last year yielded a settlement worth more than $600 million for victims of the water crisis that is awaiting court approval.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said she and her colleagues reviewed millions of documents and drew on the expertise of external epidemiologists.
“Pure and simple this case is about justice, truth, accountability, poisoned children, lost lives, shattered families that are still not whole and simply giving a damn about all of humanity,” she told a news conference in Flint.
Flint’s troubles began in 2014 after the city switched its water supply to the Flint River from Lake Huron to cut costs. Corrosive river water caused lead to leach from pipes, tainting the drinking water and causing a Legionnaires’ outbreak.
The contamination also prompted several lawsuits from parents who said their children were showing dangerously high blood levels of lead, which can cause development disorders. Lead can be toxic and children are especially vulnerable.
The law firm representing Lyon, Willey & Chamberlain, said their client was innocent.
“Our hearts go out to Flint citizens who have endured the fallout from that decision. But it does not help the people of Flint – or our criminal justice system – for the State to charge innocent people with crimes,” it said in a statement.
Snyder, a Republican who has been out of office for two years, was governor when the city of some 100,000 residents was under the control of a state-appointed manager in 2014. He was succeeded by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat.
The date of the misdemeanor offenses in charging documents filed against Snyder and posted online was listed as April 25, 2014, the day the city switched water systems. Each of the two counts carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Snyder has repeatedly apologized for the state’s poor handling of the crisis. His lawyer, Brian Lennon, alleged that the prosecution of his former client was politically motivated.
“These unjustified allegations do nothing to resolve a painful chapter in the history of our state,” Lennon said in a statement. “We are confident Gov. Snyder will be fully exonerated if this flimsy case goes to trial.”
Prosecutor Worthy said investigators followed the facts without regard for politics.
Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud, the other lead prosecutor on the case, said their ongoing grand jury investigation could yield additional charges.
“The Flint Water Crisis is not some relic of the past. At this very moment the people of Flint continue to suffer from the categorical failure of public officials at all levels of government,” Hammoud said.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta, Brendan O’Brien, Ben Klayman and Nathan Layne; additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; editing by Jonathan Oatis)