FLINT, Mich. (CN) — Lawyers clashed in a court hearing Tuesday morning where the defense tried to convince the judge to toss an indictment against former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder over his role in the Flint water contamination crisis.
When the dust settled, Genesee County District Court Judge William Crawford said he would have an answer for them in a week.
The former governor’s defense team has challenged the venue, arguing the case should have been brought in Lansing, not Flint, because that’s where the state Capitol is located.
Snyder’s lawyer Brian Lennon of Warner Norcross & Judd contended it was a matter of Michigan Supreme Court precedent and not about geography, and also questioned if the one-judge grand jury process that generated the indictments was valid.
“We’re not talking about a typical criminal act, we are talking about nonfeasance or a failure to act,” he said, referring to Snyder’s neglect of duty charges.
Lennon asked the judge to decide if Genesee Circuit Court Judge David Newblatt, serving as a one-man grand jury, had the authority to return an indictment for crimes that allegedly occurred outside Genesee County and suggested a three-person, intercounty grand jury would have been the proper way to pursue charges.
“A one-person grand jury in Genesee County cannot hand down indictments for alleged criminal acts…that occurred outside the county,” the attorney said.
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 were located.
But state prosecutor Bryant Osikowicz said Newblatt had access to relevant documents and was able to make an informed decision when the indictment was issued.
“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,” he countered.
Osikowicz insisted the indictment was handled properly and implored Crawford to defer to it, and he rejected the argument the venue was improper.
“The defendant did not confine his presence to the city of Lansing during his two terms as governor,” he said.
He added, “He did owe a duty to the city of Flint and its citizens, especially after he wrested control of the city when he appointed an emergency financial manager to rule over its affairs.”
Lennon was upset he was not granted access to grand jury testimony and related evidence, but Osikowicz replied that the testimonies had just concluded and it normally takes 60 to 90 days to finalize them.
Crawford agreed that he normally cannot see evidence before a trial has started. He said he would not provide any ruling that would require a premature disclosure of records.
The judge said he would have a decision on the defense’s motion to dismiss within seven days.
Pretrial hearings in the case were delayed for two weeks by Crawford, who was not certain of his authority in the sprawling scandal.
The district court judge was open about his lack of experience for this type of case and admitted he was not sure he could rule on the motion to dismiss filed by the defense. But he said last week he reviewed the motions and responses and was convinced that he could move forward.
“Legally, I am the person to decide this motion,” he declared.
Lennon filed the motion to dismiss the two counts of willful neglect of duty 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 Republican former governor did not have any duties “owed specifically to Flint.”
Snyder’s attorney previously said in court that the indictment is “fatally flawed” because state prosecutors “charged in the wrong venue,” since Snyder was not based in Flint during the contaminated-water crisis that began in 2014.
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 Genesee County court to plead not guilty to the charges stemming from the contaminated-water crisis that began during his time in office. 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 over the crisis, a figure that increased to $641 million by the time the deal was finalized in November and approved by a federal judge in January.
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