FLINT, Mich. (CN) — Former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appeared in court Thursday morning to plead not guilty to state charges of willful neglect stemming from the contaminated-water crisis in Flint that began during his time in office.
Snyder, along with his lawyer Brian Lennon, entered the plea before Genesee County District Judge Christopher Odette, but said little else during the hearing. The judge 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.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, whose office brought the case, was joined by Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy at a press conference Thursday morning to discuss the charges. Hammoud and Worthy were appointed by Nessel to oversee the investigation to avoid a conflict of interest.
Worthy said the team reviewed “millions of documents” and said the case could be considered one of the biggest active criminal investigations in the world.
“The impact…will span generations,” she said. “This goes far beyond just failing to supervise.”
Hammoud said Snyder’s alleged neglect of duty amounted to a crime and that further charges were possible.
“We won’t neglect any need for further investigation,” she said.
Flint Public Works Director Howard Croft was also in court to face the same charges of willful neglect, which carries a penalty of up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. This is the second time Croft was charged. The previous case was dropped when Nessel took office and ordered a reexamination.
Croft also had a personal recognizance bond of $10,000 set against him for each count and was told not to leave the state. His attorney, Alexander Rusek, told the Detroit Free Press that Croft has maintained his innocence since day one.
The lead contamination 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.
U.S. District Judge Judith Levy, a Barack Obama appointee, reviewed the deal and was urged by top lawyers to sign off on the agreement during a hearing last month. She said it was the “most complex settlement I’ve ever seen.” The judge said she would try to have an opinion ready by mid-January but cautioned that it could be delayed by further negotiation.
Nick Lyon, former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, has been charged again with nine counts of involuntary manslaughter for his role in the catastrophe.
Former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette charged Lyon with involuntary manslaughter for his role in crisis in June 2017. He was accused of having knowledge of the presence of lead contamination and the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease a year before he shared the news publicly. Those charges were also dismissed by Nessel as she took over the case, but have been refiled.
Lyon’s lawyer John Truscott said Thursday that it is a “dangerous time to be a state employee.”
“Mr. Lyon is innocent,” Truscott said in a statement. “He did not make the decision to switch the water supply and had nothing to do with the handling of the water.”
Another official facing charged over the water crisis is Darnell Earley, Flint’s former emergency manager appointed by Snyder. He faces three felony counts of misconduct in office, each carrying a penalty of up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
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.”
Emails were later released that showed state officials knew nearly a year prior about the link between the contamination and a spike in Legionnaires’ disease. While the former governor public confirmed the link in January 2016, an aide reportedly received an email about the connection in March 2015.
“The increase of the illness closely corresponds with the timeframe of the switch to the Flint River water,” Genesee County’s environmental health supervisor wrote in the email. “I want to make sure in writing that there are no misunderstandings regarding this significant and urgent public health issue.”
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.
Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley said in a statement he was pleased with the charges.
“These are the first steps in the final process to securing justice for our community. I commend Attorney General Dana Nessel and her team for their commitment to finding the truth and fully investigating all possible criminal activity,” he said. “Our community has been through a tragedy it never should have faced, but Flint is strong and we will continue moving forward.”
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