The head of Michigan's health department and four other officials were charged Wednesday with involuntary manslaughter for their alleged failure to act in the Flint water crisis, which prosecutors say led to the death of an 85-year-old man who had Legionnaires' disease.
Nick Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), was the highest-ranking official to be charged. The others include former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, former City of Flint Water Department Manager Howard Croft, the state Department of Environmental Quality Drinking Water's chief, Liane Shekter-Smith, and Water Supervisor Stephen Busch. They all face up to 15 years in prison, as well as a $7,500 fine, if convicted.
"The health crisis in Flint has created a trust crisis for Michigan government, exposing a serious lack of confidence in leaders who accept responsibility and solve problems," state Attorney General Bill Schuette said at a news conference.
Lyon was also charged with felony misconduct in office, which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, for allegedly obstructing researchers who were investigating if the surge in Legionnaires' cases was linked to the Flint River.
Eden Wells, MDHHS chief medical executive, was also charged with lying to an officer and obstruction of justice for allegedly trying to stop an investigation into the Flint’s lead-contaminated water system.
The water became contaminated after state-appointed emergency managers in 2014 temporarily switched Flint’s water intake from the Detroit River to the Flint River. Because the water wasn't treated properly, it caused the pipes to corrode and led to high levels of lead contamination.
The water contamination made people sick and has been linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease. In a statement, the Michigan Attorney General’s office said multiple Flint-area residents died of Legionnaires' disease and the charges brought forward Wednesday were in relation to the death of Robert Skidmore.
“Skidmore died of Legionnaires’ disease after many others had been diagnosed with the illness, yet no public outbreak notice had been issued,” the state attorney general’s office said.
A. Scott Bolden, attorney for Earley, called the charges against his client false and said the events connected to them occurred 11 months after his client left the emergency manager position at Flint.
“While the death of Mr. Skidmore is tragic, Mr. Earley was in no way responsible for his death,” Bolden said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “The charges brought against Mr. Earley are completely misguided and cannot be substantiated by the government. As we have contended all along, we will continue to vigorously defend Mr. Earley.”
Lyon's charging document accuses him of being aware of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Genesee County by at least January 2015 and not notifying the public until a year later. Because officials failed to notify the public and act to stop the outbreak, the disease spread throughout Flint’s water system, authorities said.
The Michigan attorney general’s office said that within a month of the water source being switched in April 2014, local, state, and federal officials began receiving complaints from Flint residents about water quality. The complaints included reports of discoloration, foul odor, and skin rashes.
By October 2014 Genesee County recorded 30 cases of Legionnaires’ disease for the previous six months. In previous years the county recorded two to nine cases of the disease per year.
Gov. Rick Snyder, who has apologized for his administration's failures in the water crisis, expressed support for Wells and Lyon, saying in a statement that they had his "full faith and confidence."
Adolfo Flores is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He focuses on immigration.
Contact Adolfo Flores at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.