Criminal Charges in Flint Water Crisis Are 'Only the Beginning,' Says Michigan AG
By Matthew Dolan, Elisha Anderson and Paul Egan
Three officials responsible for maintaining safe water in Flint tinkered with evidence, tweaked testing and misled county and federal officials, helping to set in motion the contamination of the city's drinking water with lead, according to criminal charges filed by Michigan's chief law enforcement official Wednesday.
"These charges are only the beginning and there will be more to come. That I can guarantee you," Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette told an afternoon news conference in downtown Flint.
Schuette's office filed charges against Mike Glasgow, 40, of Flint, the city's laboratory and water quality supervisor; Mike Prysby, 53, of Bath, a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality official; and Stephen Busch, 40, of DeWitt, the Lansing district coordinator for the DEQ's Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance.
The charges were authorized by District Judge Tracy Collier-Nix in a Flint courtroom Wednesday morning.
The cases against two state officials and one city manager mark the first criminal charges in the Flint water crisis, an environmental calamity that sent a known neurotoxin coursing through the city's water system, resulting in elevated lead levels in homes and businesses and sickening many who live in this economically battered blue-collar city.
Despite official assurances, many residents of this city of 100,000 still today refuse to bathe or shower in the water, much less drink from their taps. Many are using filters during this federal state of emergency.
The public health disaster has also drawn global attention, from local officials to presidential candidates, who raised questions about how the state oversees financially distressed cities as well as ensures environmental protections for some of its most vulnerable communities.
Andy Arena, a former Detroit FBI chief and the lead investigator on the state's criminal investigation led by Schuette, called the ongoing probe the largest in the history of the state. Wednesday's charges against relatively low-level government officials are only the tip of a broad and deep investigation into government misconduct related to Flint's water, prosecutors said.
The criminal charges arrived in the wake of a critical report from a task force appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder that concluded the Flint catastrophe was a direct result of "government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction and environmental injustice." Additional state and federal criminal probes are ongoing as well as a number of civil lawsuits seeking everything from safe water immediately for the city, to millions of dollars in damages.
Officials charged criminally on Wednesday "had a duty to protect the health" of Flint residents and "they failed to discharge their duties," Schuette said,
The attorney general said there were no "targets" for his continuing investigation but said nobody has been ruled out. He declined at the news conference to say whether his team anticipating interviewing Snyder as part of his probe.
"Everything's on the table," he said.
Schuette, a Republican who is widely expected to run for governor in 2018, initially resisted the idea of his office investigating the Flint water crisis. But in January, he nevertheless opened an investigation, tapping Arena and Royal Oak attorney Todd Flood to head the probe.
At the press conference, Schuette rejected the idea that his investigation could be hamstrung by the fact that he and the governor hail from the Republican Party.
"Our system of justice applies to everyone," he said. "No one is above the law," adding "we will go where the e-mails take us," a reference to the hundreds of thousands of pages of internal government e-mails disclosed by the Snyder administration in response to the crisis.
Snyder, whose administration appointed Flint's powerful emergency managers on duty during the onset of the water crisis, called the charges deeply troubling.
"I have said all along that bureaucrats making bad decisions failed the people of Flint. The charges filed today raise what happened to a whole new level and we take that very seriously," Snyder said in a statement Wednesday.
"I have fully supported the efforts of these investigations. I have demanded more answers about what happened because the people of Flint and all of Michigan deserve to know the truth." Snyder said. "We will vigorously pursue any evidence of wrongdoing and we will hold people accountable."
Snyder earlier Wednesday told reporters that "we've got a lot of wonderful people working for the State of Michigan," and "let's not let the possible situation of a handful affect all 47,000."
Documents associated with the charges paint a picture of local and state officials willfully providing false information as part of a series of events that led the city to switch its drinking water supply without adding the necessary corrosion controls to prevent lead from leaching into the water.
But missing from the criminal complaints is the answer to a question haunting Flint: Why would anyone intentionally help poison a city?
"I'm not looking for motive," Schuette told reporters Wednesday. "I'm looking for the truth."
Officials believe the city got artificially low lead readings because it didn't test the homes most at risk -- those with lead service lines or other features putting them at high risk for lead. Glasgow signed a document saying the homes Flint used to test tap water under the federal Lead and Copper Rule all had lead service lines -- a statement investigators allege was false, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
It was also Glasgow who wrote an April 2014 e-mail to the DEQ saying the Flint Water Treatment Plant was not ready to start treating Flint River water later that month, as scheduled, and it would do so over his objections. Glasgow told lawmakers at a recent hearing in Flint he never got much of a response to that e-mail, and the plant started treating the water anyway.
Prysby was a recipient of that Glasgow e-mail complaining the plant was being rushed into operation. Glasgow also testified it was Prysby who told him the Flint Water Treatment Plant did not need to use corrosion-control chemicals in treating the Flint River water, and that it could instead conduct six-month studies to determine whether lead levels in the water warranted adding the chemicals.
Busch sent a February 2015 e-mail to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official saying the Flint Water Treatment plant was using "optimized corrosion control" when in fact it was not using corrosion controls. A report by the state auditor general later said Busch believed that performing six-month rounds of testing to determine if the chemicals were needed constituted a corrosion-control program.
It was also Busch who warned before the switch to the Flint River from the Detroit system in April 2014 that making such a change would create many challenges in treating the water.
The charges announced Wednesday include felonies of misconduct in office and conspiracy related to tampering with evidence.
Busch faces three felonies and two misdemeanors; Prysby faces four felonies and two misdemeanors, and Glasgow faces one felony and one misdemeanor.
Maximum sentences for each of the felonies range from 4 to 5 years in prison with fines ranging from $5,000 to $10,000.
Prysby faces six criminal counts: two charges of misconduct in office and one count each of conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, engaging in a treatment violation that violates the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act and engaging in a monitoring violation that violates the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act.
The five charges against Busch are misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, engaging in a treatment violation that violates the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act and engaging in a monitoring violation that violates the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act.
Glasgow was charged with two counts of tampering with evidence and willful neglect of office. He has been on paid administrative leave since Tuesday, said Stacy Erwin Oakes, chief legal counsel for Flint.
Prysby and Busch have been suspended without pay, said Melanie Brown, spokeswoman for the Michigan DEQ. Mark Kriger, a Detroit attorney representing Busch, said "I don't think it is appropriate to comment on pending charges. I believe the appropriate forum to address the charges is the courtroom."
Busch and Prysby pleaded not guilty in 67th District Court in Flint during their arraignments on charges on Wednesday afternoon. It was not immediately clear when Glasgow would appear.
A judge ordered a $10,000 personal recognize bond for Busch and Prysby, both lifelong residents of Michigan. They are due back in court on May 4.
Representatives for Prysby could not immediately be reached for comment.
Robert Harrison, an attorney for Glasgow, described his client as an honest, decent person who has faithfully served his city.
"Mike strongly opposed the transfer of the source of water for the City of Flint from the Detroit Water System to the Flint River. Criminal charges against Mike are difficult to understand, given what Mike did in this case," Harrison said in an e-mail. "Not only was Mike strongly and publicly opposed to the transfer of the water system away from the Detroit system, but Mike voluntarily met with, and spoke with numerous investigators."
According to the complaint, some of the defendants willfully and knowingly misled officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Genesee County Health Department. Prysby faces an additional misconduct charge for allegedly authorizing a permit for the Flint Water Treatment Plant when he knew the plant was deficient in its ability to provide clean and safe drinking water.
The defendants manipulated monitoring reports and lead testing, the complaint alleges. Accused officials also failed to require the city to add corrosion-control chemicals to Flint's new water supply, according to the complaint.
Officials incorrectly told residents to "pre-flush" their taps before taking water samples for lead testing, skewing results, court documents say. Prosecutors also accused the defendants of removing test samples that should have been included when calculating whether the lead levels in Flint's drinking water exceeded the federal action level of 15 parts per billion.
Glasgow was charged with neglect of duty after prosecutors accused him of failing to perform the duties of a certified water treatment plant operator, the complaint says.
Several local leaders pushing for more state and federal aid for Flint applauded the investigation and charges Wednesday.
"Let me say that I support and I know that others support these investigations. We expect the facts will determine the outcome. ... It's my hope that anyone who had any part in the decisions that led to this terrible crisis will be held accountable. ... Hopefully, we'll see more of this," U.S. Rep Dan Kildee (D.-Flint) said.
"Although this brings us another step closer to the truth, it's still important to understand why and how people made such tragic decisions. My community is still struggling, and justice cannot truly be served until the citizens of Flint receive a more urgent response to this crisis." Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D -- Flint) said in a statement.
Flint's mayor, who was swept into office last fall after voters' disgust with the ongoing water crisis, said Wednesday she would watch the criminal investigations closely.
"The community of Flint has suffered from this man-made water disaster for two years now. I feel it's important and necessary for those who played a part in this crisis to be held accountable," Mayor Karen Weaver said in a statement. "There is plenty of blame to go around, from state policies that cut revenue sharing to cities such as Flint (where we have lost $63 million in the past 15 years), to state budget cuts that the U.S. EPA said diminished the ability of the state's water quality enforcement operations."
She added that she was "not here to make judgments on anyone, but I do want the facts, and I think the citizens of Flint deserve that."
Flint's water became contaminated with lead in April 2014 when the city, while under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, switched its drinking water source from Lake Huron water treated by the Detroit water system to Flint River water treated at the Flint Water Treatment Plant. Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials have acknowledged a disastrous mistake when they failed to require the city to add corrosion-control chemicals as part of the treatment process. A Flint engineering report said corrosion controls would have cost $50,000, which is $137 a day.
The corrosive water caused lead to leach from pipes, joints and fixtures. Although Flint reconnected to Detroit water in October, after state officials acknowledged the lead-poisoning problem after months of denials, the risk remains because of damage to the water infrastructure system.
Officials also still are exploring possible links between the river water and a Legionnaires' outbreak.
The state and city are now treating the pipes with higher levels of phosphates in an effort to build up a protective coating that will prevent lead from further leaching. Having more water flowing in the system would help that process, and that's one reason Snyder and other state officials want Flint residents to start using their taps again.
In addition to the state criminal investigation, county and federal officials said their efforts will continue.
"Federal law enforcement agencies have been working on a parallel investigation cooperatively with the state but independently. We will continue to explore any violations of federal law," said Gina Balaya, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's office.
Tresa Baldes, Todd Spangler and Kathleen Gray contributed to this report.
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