By ED WHITE – Associated Press
DETROIT (AP) — The Michigan Supreme Court on Tuesday dismissed the charges against former Governor Rick Snyder and others in the Flint Water Scandalclaiming that a judge sitting as a one-person grand jury had no power to issue indictments under rarely used state laws.
It’s a stunning defeat for Attorney General Dana Nessel, who took office in 2019, got rid of a special prosecutor and assembled a new team to investigate whether crimes were committed when lead contaminated Flint’s water system in 2014-2015.
State laws “authorize a judge to investigate, subpoena witnesses and issue arrest warrants” as a grand juror, the Supreme Court said.
“But they don’t allow the judge issue indictmentsthe court said in a 6-0 opinion written by Chief Justice Bridget McCormack.
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She called it a “return of the Star Chamber”, a pejorative reference to an oppressive, behind-closed-doors style of justice in 17th-century England.
The challenge was filed by the lawyers of former Chief Health Officer Nick Lyon, but the ruling also applies to Snyder and the other indictees. The cases will now return to Genesee County Court with dismissal demands.
“It wasn’t even a close case – it was six-zip. … They couldn’t do what they tried to do,” said Lyon lawyer Chip Chamberlain.
Snyder’s legal team described the court’s opinion as “unequivocal and scathing.”
“These lawsuits against Governor Snyder and the other defendants were never intended to seek justice for the citizens of Flint,” Snyder’s attorneys said. “Instead, Attorney General Nessel and her policy appointee, Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud, have staged a self-serving, vindictive, wasteful and politically motivated prosecution.”
Hammoud, however, issued a statement, insisting that matters were not over, based on his interpretation of the opinion. There was no immediate response to a request for additional comment.
The saga began in 2014 when Flint managers appointed by Snyder abandoned a regional water system and began using the Flint River to save money while a new pipeline to Lake Huron was being built. State regulators have insisted that the river water does not need to be treated to reduce its corrosive qualities. But it was a ruinous decision: the lead released from the old pipes flowed for 18 months in the majority black city.
Snyder, a Republican, has long acknowledged that his administration failed in Flint, calling it a crisis born of a “collapse of state government.”
He was absent from duty in 2021 when he was charged with two counts of willful dereliction of duty. Former Lyon and Michigan medical director Dr. Eden Wells has been charged with manslaughter over nine Legionnaires’ disease-related deaths when Flint’s water may lack chlorine to fight bacteria.
Six other people were also indicted on various charges: longtime Snyder fixer Rich Baird; former Senior Assistant Jarrod Agen; former Flint managers Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Earley; former Flint public works chief Howard Croft; and Nancy Peeler, director of the state health department.
Nessel assigned Hammoud to lead the criminal investigation, along with Wayne County District Attorney Kym Worthy, while the attorney general focused on settling the state lawsuits.
Hammoud and Worthy turned to a single-judge grand jury in Genesee County to hear evidence in secret and obtain indictments against Snyder and others.
Michigan prosecutors typically file charges after a police investigation. A single-judge grand jury is extremely rare and is used primarily to protect witnesses, especially in violent crimes, who may testify in private.
“It appears that the power of an investigating judge to issue an indictment was simply an uncontested assumption, until now,” the Supreme Court said on Tuesday.
Lyon, the former state health director, has been accused of contributing to the deaths of legionnaires by failing to warn the public in a timely manner of an outbreak. His attorneys, however, said he ordered experts to investigate the illnesses and notify Flint-area health officials. He played no part in Flint’s water switch.
“State employees should not be prosecuted or demonized for simply doing their jobs,” Lyons said after the court ruling.
The residents were disappointed.
“So everyone who was involved in this man-made disaster by the government is getting away with it unscathed?” said Leon El-Alamin, a community activist. “We lock people up every day for petty crimes. Something like that killed people. People died because of the water crisis in Flint.”
Former mayor Karen Weaver said the result was unfair.
“One of the things we’ve been told over and over again was that justice delayed hasn’t been denied. But that’s not true for the people of Flint,” Weaver said, referring to the coming years have passed.
The water change and its aftermath have been under investigation since 2016, when then-Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, appointed Todd Flood as special prosecutor. Schuette pledged to put people in jail, but the results were different: Seven people did not contest the offenses which were eventually expunged from their records.
Flood insisted he was gaining the cooperation of key witnesses and moving on to bigger names. Nonetheless, Nessel, a Democrat, fired him and pledged to start over after his election as attorney general.
In addition, the state has agreed to pay $600 million as part of a settlement of $626 million with Flint residents and homeowners who have been injured by lead-contaminated water. Most of the money goes to children.
It is undisputed that lead affects the brain and nervous system, especially in children. Experts have not identified a safe level of lead in children.
Flint in 2015 returned to a Southeast Michigan-based water system. Meanwhile, around 10,100 lead or steel water pipes had been replaced in homes last December.
Associated Press writer Corey Williams in Detroit contributed to this story.
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