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Lawyers debate venue for case against ex-Michigan governor over Flint water crisis

Defense attorneys were accused of oversimplifying an argument for where the charges should have been filed after they suggested prosecutors are afraid to try the case outside of Flint.

FLINT, Mich. (CN) — The criminal case against former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder for his role in the Flint water crisis inched forward with a hearing Thursday morning after slumbering for months over an appeal.

Defense lawyer Gaetan Gerville-Reache of Warner Norcross & Judd began his argument by insisting that state law requires criminal charges to be filed where the alleged crime actually occurred, and in this case it did not occur in Genesee County, home of Flint.

Gerville-Reache said that prosecutors want the case to stay in Flint but the Michigan Constitution fixes gubernatorial business in Lansing, the seat of state government. The attorney said if the trial was held in Lansing, it would “not lead to the outcome they want.”

Genesee County Circuit Court Judge F. Kay Behm tried to get to the root of the issue with her questions to the defense.

The judge wanted to confirm if the “starting point” of this case was when an emergency manager was appointed by Snyder to handle a financial crisis in Flint. She pressed Gerville-Reache to concede that the former governor does not dispute he installed the manager to cut costs or that the manager served at his pleasure.

“You have to figure out where the crime was committed. He doesn’t have to go to Flint to appoint an emergency manager,” the attorney said of his client.

Behm challenged Gerville-Reache to explain why Ingham County, where Lansing is located, would be responsible for policing elected officials.

“This is unique,” he replied. “We are dealing with a crime of omission.”

When Assistant Attorney General Eric Jenkins was allowed to speak on behalf of the state, he accused Snyder's team of “making a narrow rule that doesn’t exist in law.”

“It’s not as simple as where is the seat of government,” he said.

Jenkins said venue was appropriate where the actions should have been taken and under the law a duty is owed to the location “where this public health disaster occurred.”

“If venue is proper…clearly you can charge in Genesee County,” he concluded.

Behm said she would “take a look at everything” and issue a ruling on venue next week.   

Snyder’s team challenged the venue of Genesee County, where Flint is located, and also questioned if Genesee County Circuit Court Judge David Newblatt, serving as a one-man grand jury, had the authority to return an indictment.

A motion to dismiss the criminal case, in which Snyder is charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty, was denied by Genesee County District Judge William Crawford last year. It was debated for weeks as Crawford was initially not certain of his authority in the sprawling scandal.

In January 2021, 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.

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

In his 2016 State of the State speech, Snyder apologized with a quivering voice for the moves that led to the crisis. The action 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.

Flint residents complained of strange-tasting, cloudy water but city and state leaders insisted the supply was safe. Months later, researchers began publicizing high lead levels in the blood of Flint children.

Currently, the city continues to recover as Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley recently announced that a secondary water pipeline project was completed.

 “This system will ensure the city of Flint has a backup water source in case of an emergency. We are continuing to move our community forward in a positive direction,” he said in a statement. “The secondary water pipeline is another step toward rebuilding trust in our community. I am extremely proud of the progress we’ve made.”

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