Michigan Supreme Court throws wrench in criminal cases in Flint crisis

BY SourceMedia | MUNICIPAL | 06/30/22 03:30 PM EDT By Yvette Shields

The Michigan attorney general?s pursuit of criminal charges against former Gov. Rick Snyder and eight other officials, including two former emergency managers, for their role in Flint?s water contamination crisis will continue despite a setback at the hands of the state?s high court.

The court invalidated last year?s grand jury indictment because it came from a sole Genesee County Circuit Court judge. The opinion came in an appeal filed directly with the high court by one of the officials charged in a fight against lower court rulings allowing the case to proceed. All of those charges can now seek dismissal at the local level.

Attorney General Dana Nessel?s Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy announced the criminal charges early last year for alleged actions in the crisis that occurred while the city was under state fiscal oversight.

The Seventh Circuit Genesee County chief judge had appointed Judge David J. Newblatt to serve as a one-man grand jury and the charges stemmed from evidence he received and evaluated from prosecutors.

While state law ?authorizes the use of a one-man grand jury to investigate, subpoena witnesses, and issue arrest warrants, those statutes do not authorize that one-man grand jury to issue an indictment initiating a criminal prosecution,? the Michigan Supreme Court said in a 6-0 opinion. Justice Elizabeth T. Clement did not participate due to her prior involvement as chief legal counsel for Snyder.

?The citizens of Flint should know that these cases are not over,? Hammoud said in a statement. "Our reading is that the court?s opinion interprets the one-man grand jury process to require charges to be filed at the district court and include a preliminary examination. Our team is prepared to move forward through that process. We still believe these charges can and will be proven in court.?

Snyder?s attorneys applauded the ruling and argued it supports their position that ?Attorney General Nessel and her political appointee Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud staged a self-interested, vindictive, wasteful, and politically motivated prosecution.?

?We will be moving immediately to dismiss all criminal charges against Gov. Snyder based on today?s unequivocal and scathing Supreme Court ruling,? Snyder?s attorneys said.

The charges filed against the former governor who served from 2011 to 2019 were misdemeanors ? two counts of willful neglect of duty ? but a conviction can carry a prison term of up to one year for each count and/or a $1,000 fine. The indictment accused Snyder of neglecting his mandatory legal duty to properly supervise officials appointed by him and failing to declare a state of emergency and/or disaster earlier than he did.

Former Flint Emergency Manager Gerald Ambrose was charged with four counts of misconduct in office, each a felony that carries a possible five-year sentence and/or $10,000 fine. Former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley was charged with three counts of misconduct in office.

The crisis began in 2014. In January 2016, Snyder declared a state of emergency in the city, apologized in his state of the state and pledged to fix the problem but he came under attack for failing to prevent or move quickly to correct the contamination.

The crisis occurred after the city's contract with Detroit to receive Lake Huron water ended and the city began pulling its water supply from the Flint River in April 2014 while awaiting the completion of the $285 million bond-financed Karegnondi water pipeline carrying Lake Huron water to Flint and other Genesee County communities.

The city failed to properly treat the Flint River water, triggering lead contamination because of pipe corrosion. It was not abated until the city in the fall of 2015 shifted back to Detroit-supplied water. The lead poisoning resulted in long-term injury to residents, especially children whose developing brains are considered most at risk to damage from lead poisoning.

In addition to the lead poisoning, the crisis is blamed for a 2014-15 Legionnaires? disease outbreak in the Flint region that led to the deaths of at least 12 and sickened another 79 individuals.

Residents in 2020 sued Karegnondi bond underwriters JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM), Wells Fargo Bank, and Stifel Nicolaus & Co. Inc. ? in federal court accusing them of aiding and abetting in the events that led to the lead poisoning crisis. The court in March dismissed the lawsuit saying: Karegnondi ?is a municipal entity. Imposing a duty on defendants could result in our nation?s banks making decisions on behalf of municipalities. Banks are not accountable to the public in the voting booth. On balance, the burdens and benefits weigh against imposing a duty on defendants in this case.? The plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal in April.

Nessel in 2019 dropped pending charges against 15 officials leveled from a probe conducted by her predecessor Bill Schuette, saying all available evidence had not been pursued.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020 announced a $600 million state settlement financed with borrowing. The settlement brings to about $1 billion the money Whitmer and Snyder committed to the city to cover compensation, lead pipe replacement, water filters, and healthcare.

Nessel and Whitmer are Democrats and former attorney general Schuette and Snyder are Republicans.

Ambrose served as Flint?s EM from Jan. 13, through April 28, 2015. He also served a tenure as finance director. Earley was named EM in September 2013 and served until January 2015.

Earley oversaw the decision to change the city's water source to the Flint River. A March 13, 2014, order signed by Ambrose for a water main cut-in at the water plant cleared the way for the switch. Flint exited state financial receivership on April 10, 2018, after seven years.

Earley is accused in the indictment of disseminating misleading information about the city of Flint's drinking water. Ambrose is accused of misconduct while acting as finance director by allowing the city to incur debt in violation of the Home Rule City Act.

Flint reverted to Detroit water in October 2015 and signed a long-term contract to continue receiving water through the Great Lakes Water Authority, a regional agency that is the successor agency to Detroit?s system.

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