A state judge will continue presiding over the Flint water contamination case against former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder after pausing proceedings last week to sort out jurisdiction issues.
FLINT, Mich. (CN) — Pretrial hearings in the criminal case against former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder over his role in the Flint water contamination crisis continued Tuesday after a week of review by a district court judge who was not certain of his authority in the sprawling scandal.
Last week, Genesee County District Court Judge William Crawford was open about his lack of experience for this type of case and admitted he was not sure he could rule on a motion to dismiss filed by the defense. But he said he reviewed the motions and responses and was now convinced that he could move forward.
“Legally, I am the person to decide this motion,” he declared Tuesday.
Snyder’s lawyer Brian Lennon of Warner Norcross & Judd was quick to ask Crawford if he should wait for a decision on a pending motion before another judge in the same court about the possible recusal of Crawford due to the appearance of a conflict of interest. Crawford is a resident of Flint and a potential claimant for settlement funds.
But Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Molly Kettler accused Lennon of “grandstanding” since the issue was not specifically related to the case at hand.
“We seem to be kind of going off the rails here,” she said. “We want this case to be dealt with like any other case with any other defendant.”
Kettler was adamant that Lennon did not file a motion for recusal with Crawford, so the question was irrelevant until he did.
“If the defendant has a motion to file, he should probably file it,” she said.
She added: “We want the opportunity to respond in writing to issues that are raised by the defendant.”
But Crawford said nothing was off the rails since Lennon did not file anything with him yet.
“You seem to be a bit peremptory,” he said to Kettler.
Lennon shot back that he was not arguing that the district court was the wrong jurisdiction and said the use of another judge as a secret one-person grand jury proved it was not like any other case.
“By doing that, they not only have refused to identify who the witnesses are—that’s not how they typically handle cases—they haven’t given us any evidence of Governor Snyder’s guilt. If they had done that it would be handled like a typical case,” the attorney said.
Crawford said he could only focus on what was in front of him.
“Right now there is one motion before the court and we have a scheduled hearing on it, and that’s how I would proceed,” the judge said.
The proceedings are fascinating to Crawford, who conceded it was not a normal process since Snyder was involved.
“This case is so unusual, sometimes I’m not as clear on it,” he confessed. “I’m figuring this out as I go along.”
A hearing on the former governor’s motion to dismiss is now scheduled for next Tuesday.
The motion was supposed to be heard last Tuesday but Crawford said he needed time to make sure he was following the law.
“One-person grand jury, multi-county grand jury…Don’t remember that in law school,” he said at the time.
Lennon filed the motion to dismiss the two counts of willful neglect of duty. It said that “neglecting a city is not a crime — certainly not one with which Governor Snyder has been charged.” The motion 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 also “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. The state Capitol is located about an hour west in Lansing.
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.
Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley, a Democrat, said Snyder’s defense that neglecting a city is not a crime “is infuriating.”
“This criminal defense goes beyond implicit bias,” he said in a statement last week. “Moreover, it is explicit bias when communities of color are neglected and they argue it is not a crime. What happened to the children, families, and residents of Flint was absolutely criminal. We as a community deserve justice, not more insulting attempts to defend their actions.”
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.
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.
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 publicly confirmed the link in January 2016, an aide reportedly received an email about the connection in March 2015.
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.