Flint’s Public Health Crisis Leads to New Criminal Charges against Public Officials

Paul Dykewicz
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Posted: Dec 23, 2016 12:01 AM
Flint’s Public Health Crisis Leads to New Criminal Charges against Public Officials

The manmade public health disaster in Flint, Michigan, that caused lead-tainted tap water to go into local homes, schools and businesses, is far from resolved as the state’s attorney general filed criminal charges this week against four key public officials. This brings the total to 13 former or current city or state leaders who are accused of misdeeds.

Michigan’s Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed 43 criminal charges against the 13 people since the start of the Flint water investigation, which has included interviews with roughly 200 witnesses to identify those responsible for allowing the catastrophe. Two of the newly-accused officials are former emergency managers who were appointed by Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to help manage the finances of the financially reeling city.

The two former emergency managers, Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, were charged this week with multiple 20-year felonies for failing to protect the citizens of Flint from health hazards caused by contaminated drinking water. Schuette also announced that Earley and Ambrose, as well as ex-City of Flint administrators Howard Croft and Daugherty Johnson, face felony charges of false pretenses and conspiracy to commit false pretenses due to their roles in the city issuing bonds to pay for a portion of the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) water project.

This week’s criminal charges were the third round of allegations brought by Schuette in his investigation. He also filed a round of civil law suits against water supply engineering firms.

The unusual false pretenses and conspiracy to commit false pretense charges against Earley and Ambrose are based on their gaining authorization to borrow millions of dollars for the city by allegedly claiming an “environmental calamity.” As a bankrupt city that suffered tens of thousands of job losses in the preceding decades, Flint needed the Michigan Department of Treasury’s approval to take on additional debt.

Initially, emergency manager Earley’s attempts secure funds in January and February of 2014 were rejected because the city was in receivership, had a $13-million deficit and lacked a credit rating, the attorney general explained. State law banned the city from accumulating any more debt, he added.

However, the defendants allegedly used a Home Rule City Act emergency bond clause, which was intended to address instances of “fire, flood, or other calamity,” to borrow the tens of millions required to pay for Flint’s portion of the KWA. The clean-up of a troublesome lime sludge lagoon, which developed as the byproduct of past water treatment, was cited by the defendants as they pursued a state waiver to let the city go deeper into debt, according to the criminal complaint.

The situation was worsened by a provision inside a 15-page Statement of Purpose to upgrade Flint’s Water Treatment Plant system that required the city to use the Flint River as an interim water source and the Flint Water Treatment Plant as the sanitizing and distribution center, according to Schuette.

But the Flint Water Treatment Plant was not ready to produce safe, clean water for the people of Flint, the criminal complaint claimed. However, the defendants mandated that the city to use the plant in its proposal to issue bonds.

The defendants Croft and Johnson allegedly pressured employees of the local water treatment plant to get the facility ready to treat river water properly before April 2014. That was the date the plant was scheduled to re-start. When the deadline approached, the defendants allegedly ignored warnings and test results, while proceeding to shut off the pipes that brought Lake Huron water to Flint through a treatment plant in Detroit. They then approved turning on the valves to start using Flint River water instead of fresh water from a Great Lake.

The U.S. Senate approved $120 million in funding for Flint on Dec. 10 by passing water infrastructure legislation and a continuing resolution to fund the U.S. government through April 28, 2017. The two bills combined to include provisions to authorize and provide funding for Flint and an additional $170 million or more to address concerns about lead in U.S. drinking water generally.

Legislation passed earlier this month by the U.S. House, with the strong backing of U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, Michigan, matched the Senate in providing $100 million in grants for any state where an emergency declaration has been issued for lead in the drinking water. Right now, that language only applies to Flint.

Congress voted to approve funding for Flint in the wake of U.S. House hearings that found officials from the city, state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency failed to take swift corrective action when testing found dangerous levels of lead in local tap water.

Michigan legislators thus far have approved more than $234 million in Flint-related funding, including $27 million to begin to replace lead pipes that have been leaching contaminants into the city’s tap water.

Click here to listen to an informative original rap about the Flint water crisis.