FLINT, Mich. (CN) — Former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was criminally charged Wednesday for his role in the Flint water contamination catastrophe that left thousands of his constituents poisoned.
Snyder, who fashioned himself as a businessman candidate when he was elected in 2010, was charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty according to an online court record in Genesee County District Court.
Court records show Snyder is being charged by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. Spokesman for the AG, Kelly Rossman-McKinney, told the Detroit Free Press she could not confirm or deny the charges, but Nessel is scheduled to make a major announcement about the case on Thursday.
It is the first time in the 184-year history of the state that a governor or former governor had been charged with crimes related to their time in that office. Snyder served in the position from 2011 to 2019.
In August 2020, the City of Flint agreed to a $600 million settlement from the state over the crisis, a figure that increased to $641 million by the time the deal was finalized in November.
“What happened in Flint should have never happened, and financial compensation with this settlement is just one of the many ways we can continue to show our support for the city of Flint and its families,” Democrat Governor Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement at the time.
U.S. District Judge Judith Levy, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2014, reviewed the deal and was urged by top lawyers to sign off on the agreement during a public hearing last month. She said it was the “most complex settlement I’ve ever seen.”
Attorney Corey Stern, appointed to represent individual claimants, said at the hearing he had 5,000 clients, 2,700 of whom are children. He said the hundreds of millions of dollars that would be paid to victims would quickly be reinvested in the city and flow through the community. He also said it was just the beginning.
“$641 million is a significant amount of money, but more is coming,” he said.
The judge said she would try to have an opinion ready by mid-January but cautioned that it could be delayed by further negotiation.
In June 2017, then Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette charged the head of the state health department Nick Lyon with involuntary manslaughter for his role in the Flint water crisis and related Legionnaires’ disease outbreak.
Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, was accused of having knowledge of the presence of the deadly disease one year before he shared the news publicly.
The charges were later dismissed. His attorney John Truscott put out a statement soon after word leaked about these charges.
“If there is any truth to the reports that Mr. Lyon may be charged with criminal offenses, it would be an absolute travesty of justice. The original charges filed in June 2017 were politically motivated and meritless, and after two years of baseless claims and personal attacks they were dismissed.“
At his 2016 State of the State speech, former Governor Snyder addressed his constituents with a quivering voice and stumbling over his words at times as he apologized repeatedly for the moves that led to the crisis.
Chanting from the large group of protesters outside was audible during the speech as Snyder asked legislators for $28 million in emergency funding.
“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.
Snyder publicly confirmed the link in January 2016, but his aide Jim Henry received an email about the connection on March 10, 2015, according to reports by the Associated Press and the watchdog group Progress Michigan.
“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. “I want to make sure in writing that there are no misunderstandings regarding this significant and urgent public health issue.”
Contamination was a problem in Flint for nearly two years since an emergency manager appointed by Snyder switched the city’s drinking-water supply from Lake Huron to the notoriously polluted Flint River.
The move 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 work 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. Our community has been through a tragedy it never should have faced, but Flint is strong and we will continue moving forward.”
Snyder’s lawyer, Brian Lennon, told the AP he could not immediately comment.