Criminal Case Against Ex-Michigan Governor Paused Amid Venue Appeal

Rick Snyder’s lawyers are hoping for a dismissal of the charges over the Flint water crisis if the appeal is ultimately successful.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder stays silent as reporters ask questions after his video arraignment in downtown Flint, Mich., in January. (Cody Scanlan/The Flint Journal via AP)

FLINT, Mich. (CN) —The judge overseeing the criminal case against former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder for his role in cost-cutting efforts that resulted in the Flint water contamination crisis agreed Tuesday to stay all pending deadlines as a challenge over venue and jurisdiction is appealed.

“This case is going to take a long time anyway,” Genesee County District Judge William Crawford said in a hearing Tuesday morning.

Madelaine Lane of Warner Norcross + Judd represented Snyder at the hearing and argued that if he wins the appeal to change venue and jurisdiction, any other decision by the court would be moot.

“It would be a waste of this court’s time and taxpayer resources to continue litigating a matter that would ultimately be dismissed,” she said.

Lane added it was not a simple case, citing the use of a one-man grand jury to bring the indictment and the amount of press conferences held by the prosecution.

“In my experience, that doesn’t happen…in criminal matters typically seen in this court,” she said.

Lane also said that prosecutors told her to expect more than 21 million documents as evidence, which she tried to put into context by suggesting it would take more than 8,400 banker’s boxes to hold it all if it was printed out.

Based on that volume, Lane said the prosecution was nowhere near prepared to go to trial.

“The government waited nearly six years to bring this case, it can certainly wait a few more months,” she said.

Prosecutor Bryant Osikowicz did not put up much of a fight. He said the stay was not necessary but the state would respect the court’s decision.

“If your honor believes that a stay is warranted now, the people would respect that decision,” he said. “We just think it’s premature.”

Crawford was still concerned about the voluminous amount of evidence, but Lane assured him that she was not asking for the discovery process to be halted, just the deadlines.

“I do have concerns [about the evidence], but I do also believe in judicial economy,” the judge said. “If it goes the distance, this case will be here two or three years, whether it’s my or another court it’s going to be a lot to handle.”

A motion to dismiss the criminal case, in which Snyder is charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty, was denied by Crawford on March 18. It was debated for weeks as Crawford was initially not certain of his authority in the sprawling scandal but ultimately sided with prosecution.

“Since the only county listed, Genesee County, is within the grand juror’s jurisdiction, multi-county jurisdiction is not invoked and therefore the motion to quash is denied,” he said at the time.

Another one of Snyder’s lawyers, Brian Lennon of Warner Norcross + Judd, had asked the judge to consider if Genesee Circuit Court Judge David Newblatt, serving as the one-man grand jury, had the authority to return an indictment for crimes that allegedly occurred outside Genesee County, where Flint is located.

“A one-person grand jury in Genesee County cannot hand down indictments for alleged criminal acts…that occurred outside the county,” the attorney asserted.  

Lennon cited a 2019 ruling from the Michigan Supreme Court over a venue dispute and said the charges should be filed in the county where the alleged crimes occurred, in this case in Ingham County, where Snyder’s offices in Lansing were located.

“Judge Newblatt evaluated evidence and then concluded there was probable cause that a crime was committed in the city of Flint and the defendant committed that crime,” Osikowicz, the state’s attorney, countered.

Crawford suggested it might be up to the attorney general to make the decision.

“Should it turn out that much of the testimony and evidence seems to favor an alleged crime occurring in Flint, a jury may be confused, leading to an undue presumption of reasonable doubt,” he said. “Conversely, one might argue the opposite regarding a Genesee County jury being asked to decide venue should the evidence or testimony relate largely to the events in Lansing.”

The judge added, “It may be appropriate for the attorney general to pick her poison—so to speak—and designate venue as allowed by statue.”

Lennon originally filed the motion to dismiss the charges in January. The motion said that “neglecting a city is not a crime — certainly not one with which Governor Snyder has been charged.” It also said the former governor did not have any duties “owed specifically to Flint.”

But prosecutors were resolute in their response.

“The indictments are sound…It is incoherent to suggest that breaching a duty owed to the people of a particular city does not entail a sufficient connection to that city to establish venue there,” they wrote in a brief.

In January, Snyder appeared in court to plead not guilty to the charges. Crawford ordered the former governor not to leave the state without permission and set a personal recognizance bond at $10,000 for each of the two counts.

The Flint water crisis began in April 2014 when a state-appointed emergency manager switched the city’s drinking water supply from Lake Huron water treated in Detroit to Flint River water treated at the Flint Water Treatment Plant. Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials admitted they failed to require corrosion-control chemicals as part of the water treatment process.

Flint switched back to the Detroit water system in October 2015.

In his 2016 State of the State speech, Snyder addressed the people of Michigan with a quivering voice while stumbling over his words at times as he apologized repeatedly for the moves that led to the crisis.

“I’m sorry, and I will fix it,” Snyder said at the time. “Government failed you – federal, state and local leaders – by breaking the trust you placed in us.”

The move to switch water supplies was a cost-cutting one, taking filtration responsibilities from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department and reassigning it to a city plant.

The water was not treated properly, however, and lead pipes infected the supply. Flint residents quickly complained of strange-tasting, cloudy water, but city and state leaders continued insisting that the supply was safe. Months later, researchers began publicizing high lead levels in the blood of Flint children.

Last August, the city agreed to a $600 million settlement with the state, a figure that increased to $641 million by the time the deal was finalized in November and approved by a federal judge in January.

In a vote last week, the Flint City Council joined Mayor Sheldon Neeley to call for more transparency in the review of attorney fees for the litigation settlement. The plaintiffs’ lawyers are requesting more than $200 million from the settlement funds.

“The Flint community has suffered enough and deserves transparency to ensure these dollars are given to Flint families and children as intended,” the mayor said. “This would be a thorough review and opportunity for residents to see documentation of fees and expenses on their behalf.”

Monday was the deadline for victims of the water contamination to register with the city for a share of the settlement. The Detroit Free Press reported the number of claimants was close to 40,000.

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