LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan's top public health official is a target in the criminal investigation of Flint's water crisis that has led to charges against nine government employees, his lawyer said Tuesday.
Nick Lyon, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services and a member of Gov. Rick Snyder's Cabinet, received a letter in early September from investigators indicating he is a focus, attorney Larry Willey said.
Eight current or former state employees — including three from Lyon's agency — and one Flint worker have been charged in Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette's ongoing probe.
The health department is under scrutiny for its handling of a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak in the Flint area and allegedly suppressing information about elevated lead levels in children. Lyon is the highest-ranking official known to be under investigation.
"We don't believe charges are appropriate and we're meeting with them to explain why we don't think they're appropriate," Willey said. Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely declined to comment.
Flint, a city of nearly 100,000 residents, switched from Detroit's water system to the Flint River in 2014 while under state financial management. The water was improperly treated, releasing toxic lead into the supply.
One of the people charged, former state epidemiologist Corrine Miller, acknowledged in a plea deal last month that she was aware of dozens of cases of Legionnaires' disease but did not report them to the general public, and that the DHHS should have notified the public in January 2015 — a year earlier than it did.
The plea agreement states that Miller — after being tasked on or around Jan. 28, 2015, with providing a report on the outbreak's first wave — reported to someone identified as "Suspect 2" that the epidemic "was related to the switch in the water source" after compiling data about the illness in Genesee County, where Flint is located.
A definitive connection between the corrosive river water and the outbreak has not been made, but many experts believe it likely was the cause. Legionnaires' disease is a pneumonia caused by bacteria in the lungs. People get sick if they inhale mist or vapor from contaminated water systems, hot tubs or cooling systems — typically in large buildings such as hospitals and hotels.
In April, Lyon told a legislative committee that there was an eight-month gap between when he was made aware of the investigation into the Legionnaires' outbreak in January 2015 and when the issue rose to his level again around the time the city's lead crisis exploded in September 2015.
Lyon then waited another four months, until January 2016, to notify Snyder. Pressed by reporters on whether he should have told the governor earlier about the Legionellosis cases, Lyon said he waited until DHHS employees were close to finishing their probe and an investigatory report.
He told legislators that state experts likely wanted to "solve the problem" before they raised it with higher-level executives, but the Legionellosis investigation "wasn't one that was easily solved."
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