Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette (R) announced criminal charges Tuesday against four former Flint officials as part of an investigation into the city’s lead-tainted water scandal. The move brought the total number of people facing charges to 13.
Former Flint emergency managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose both face multiple charges, including false pretenses and conspiring to commit false pretenses, felonies that each carry a 20-year sentence.
Schuette also announced charges against former Director of Public Works Howard Croft and Daugherty Johnson, the department’s former utilities director.
The state attorney general alleges that, as part of a plan to build a new water pipeline, the four defendants were involved in defrauding the state to borrow millions of dollars. And he accused them of authorizing the switch to Flint River water, despite knowing the treatment plant was not ready for service, sparking the crisis.
The cash-strapped city stopped buying its water from the Detroit system, which draws from Lake Huron, and began using the Flint River in 2014 ― supposedly to cut costs. Residents began complaining soon after that their tap water was making them sick. Under direction of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the city had failed to properly treat the water to prevent it from corroding pipes and lead leached into residents’ drinking water. Exposure to any amount of lead is a serious health risk ― particularly for young children, whose development it can impede.
Schuette accused Earley and the other defendants of putting financial savings before residents’ safety.
“All too prevalent, and very evident, during the course of this investigation has been a fixation on finances and balance sheets. This fixation has cost lives,” he said at a press conference Tuesday. “The tragedy that we know as the Flint water crisis did not occur by accident, no. Flint was a casualty of arrogance, disdain and a failure of management.”
Earley, one of the most visible and publicly criticized figures in the crisis, was appointed emergency manager by Gov. Rick Snyder (R) in 2013, when the city was in financial distress.
Before he left his post in early 2015, Earley was involved in a regional plan to build the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline, which would allow Flint to get water directly from Lake Huron, rather than buying water from Detroit. According to Schuette, Flint’s existing debt load meant it couldn’t get loans from the state to fund its portion of construction costs. So the city misused an obscure exception that allows a waiver in the case of “fire, flood, or other calamity” to get funding that Earley intended to instead divert for construction of the KWA, prosecutors allege.
Rather than renew a contract to purchase Detroit’s pretreated water, officials made plans to use the Flint River in the interim before the pipeline was complete, which required major upgrades to the water treatment plant.
In the push to keep the KWA on track, Earley “allegedly allowed the Flint Water Treatment Plant to produce water despite knowledge the plant was not ready for use, allowed Flint to enter into a contract requiring use of the Flint Water Treatment Plant during that time, and authorized false and misleading public statements that the water was safe to drink,” according to Schuette.
Ambrose worked with Earley as a finance director and succeeded him as emergency manager for a few months in 2015. Schuette alleges that he was directly involved in the pipeline plan.
Additionally, prosecutors allege Ambrose “obstructed and hindered a healthcare investigation conducted by the Genesee County Health Department with regard to the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak.”
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality initially dismissed residents’ complaints about the water. However, it eventually acknowledged that there were elevated lead levels in the water and verified a pediatrician’s findings that there were an alarming number of children with elevated lead levels in their blood.
The Michigan governor and President Barack Obama both declared emergencies in Flint early this year, and the city switched back to its original water source. There have been extensive efforts to respond to the crisis, including the expensive task of replacing lead service lines. Congress passed a bill this month that allocated $170 million in aid for Flint and other cities with contaminated drinking water, and recent testing shows lead levels are below federal action levels.
Some have blamed the state’s controversial emergency manager law for creating the conditions that allowed the water crisis to occur. By definition, an emergency manager is an outsider tasked with hacking away at a city’s debt, not improving services, and is given sweeping authority over elected officials in order to make difficult, deep cuts. The law ― which has disproportionately affected black municipalities ― was repealed in a 2012 statewide referendum, but legislators quickly passed a new, stronger version.
“Here we are more than two years since the water crisis began and we still have the same draconian law in place, Flint residents are still without clean, safe water, and Bill Schuette himself is fighting a federal court order to deliver life-saving water to residents who otherwise would be without,” Nayyirah Shariff, director of community activist group Flint Rising, said in a statement.
“We are tired of the selective showboating being masked as justice. We demand complete justice now and we will not rest until we get it,” Shariff added.
The eight state employees and one city official previously charged in Schuette’s ongoing investigation are all scheduled to appear in court Wednesday.
This post has been updated with more details about the charges.