Michigan Judge Refuses to Toss Neglect Charges Against Ex-Governor

Former Governor Rick Snyder’s lawyer was unable to convince the judge that the charges stemming from the Flint water crisis were brought in the wrong venue.

Former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (AP file photo/Al Goldis)

FLINT, Mich. (CN) — A request to dismiss the criminal case against former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder for his role in the Flint water contamination crisis was denied Thursday morning as his lawyer vowed to appeal.

The motion to dismiss two misdemeanor counts of willful neglect of duty was debated for weeks before it was rejected by Genesee County District Judge William Crawford, who was initially not certain of his authority in the sprawling scandal.

On Thursday, he sided with the prosecution. 

“If the grand juror…believed the crime to be committed in another county, [then] he would have listed such county as a place of offense,” Crawford said, referring to another judge who acted as a one-person grand jury in indicting the Republican former governor.

He added, “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.”

Snyder’s lawyer 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, 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 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.

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 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.

Crawford said Thursday there might be merit to the defense team’s argument that the case should have been brought in Lansing, where the state Capitol is located, but suggested it might up to the attorney general to make that 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 said he would file a stay of the district court proceedings because he was unable to see any documentation.

“We have no evidence provided by the government to defend our client yet,” the attorney told the judge.

Lennon originally 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 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 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 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.

Estimates released by the city of Flint indicate it will receive $99.33 million in relief funds through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed into law last week. Mayor Sheldon Neeley welcomed the aid, which he said was deeply needed.  

“This is a big win for our community, and we will continue advocating for Flint and Flint families,” Neeley said. “We still are learning more about the details of any restrictions on this funding, but we know it will allow us to invest in true recovery from the intersection of crises we have weathered.”

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