Last month, Michigan’s Attorney General announced criminal charges brought against eight former Michigan officials, including former Governor Rick Snyder, based on their alleged mishandling of the Flint Water crisis. Considering the eight as a group, there has been a total of 42 criminal charges filed, including perjury, misconduct in office, and even involuntary manslaughter.
Between 2014 and 2019, it was discovered that the water in Flint, Michigan was contaminated with lead and Legionnaires’ disease after the city changed water sources. Reports reflect that officials failed to properly treat the water or prevent lead from the pipes bleeding into the water supply. A state and federal public health emergency was declared in 2016, and several officials resigned as the death toll reached 12, with an unknown number of other people negatively impacted.
While some individuals have already been charged and prosecuted in connection with the public health crisis, the Attorney General’s announcement marks a significant development. Former Governor Snyder has been charged with two misdemeanor counts of willful neglect based on his alleged failure to inquire “into the performance, condition, and administration” of officials who were involved in regulating Flint’s water supply and allegedly neglecting his legal duty to protect Michigan’s citizens against disaster or emergency. Others who worked directly under Snyder are charged with perjury, official misconduct, and one former advisor is charged with obstruction of justice and extortion based on conduct that occurred after the water contamination was discovered and while state and federal authorities were investigating the matter.
Most of the former Flint city officials are charged misdemeanor willful neglect of duty and felony misconduct in office. Meanwhile, some of the most serious charges are directed at officials from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and other state agencies, including charges of involuntary manslaughter.
The charges are unusual and in some respects unprecedented. Rarely are government officials held criminally liable for their failures while in office. Snyder is the first current or former government to face criminal charges for misconduct that occurred while he was in office. His defense will likely include arguments regarding official immunity and the notion that executive officials must be granted flexibility and deference to respond to problems within the state. The involuntary manslaughter and other charges relating to neglect will depend on what the other officials knew at the time and whether they could foresee the damage caused by the contaminated water in Flint.
We expect to learn more about the case as the investigation remains open and ongoing.
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