Year later, Flint water criminal cases move slowly in court

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FLINT — A year after unprecedented charges against a former Michigan governor, the Flint water prosecution of Rick Snyder and eight others is moving slowly, bogged down by disputes over millions of documents and even whether some cases were filed in the proper court.

Snyder, a Republican, is charged with willful neglect of duty arising from decisions to switch Flint’s water supply to the Flint River in 2014-15 without treating it to reduce the corrosive effect on aging urban pipes. Lead contaminated the system, a disastrous result in the majority Black community.

Snyder’s name was the biggest in the indictments announced by the attorney general’s office in January 2021, although he’s facing misdemeanors while other senior members from his administration are dealing with more serious charges.

Former Michigan Health Director Nick Lyon is charged with involuntary manslaughter related to nine Flint-area deaths blamed on Legionnaires’ disease during the water switch. Some experts have pointed to bacteria in the river water for the outbreak.

Lyon and his lawyers were returning to court Wednesday to argue he didn’t owe a “personal duty” to individual citizens, under Michigan law, and that his case should be dismissed.

“Mr. Lyon was a public administrator, not a health expert, and scores of qualified individuals at the state and local levels were investigating and responding to the outbreak at his direction,” lawyers said in a court filing.

Prosecutors insisted Lyon can be held criminally responsible because he knew about a rise in Legionnaires’ cases long before it was publicly announced, and he could have done more. Dr. Eden Wells, who was Michigan’s chief medical executive, faces the same charges.

A statewide group that represents local health departments is taking Lyon’s side, although Judge Elizabeth Kelly turned down a request to add its voice to the case.

“Inventing criminal responsibility for public officials” will discourage people from serving in government, the group said, not make the public safer.

Snyder, who led the state for eight years until 2019, is the first current or former Michigan governor to be charged with crimes related to their time in office. He acknowledged that the Flint water switch, pushed by city managers whom he appointed, and subsequent lead contamination were tragic, but he has denied any personal wrongdoing.

Snyder’s legal team has attacked the case on several fronts, starting with location. Defense attorneys claimed he can’t be charged in a Flint court with neglect of duty when Snyder worked miles away in Ingham County. That argument so far has failed, though an appeal is pending.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, have lost key court decisions involving documents that were seized from state offices during the investigation. Search warrants apparently swept up records that include confidential communications involving lawyers during the Snyder administration, including Flint water issues and even the Detroit bankruptcy.

Kelly recently ordered the attorney general’s office to set up an independent team to comb through records that could violate attorney-client privilege. Assistant Attorney General Christopher Kessel warned it could cost $48 million and take a few years.

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