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Preliminary hearing begins for four Flint water crisis defendants

steve carmody
Michigan Radio

The government's chief prosecutor in the Flint water crisis criminal case suggests top officials pressured state employees to switch Flint’s water source before the city was ready to treat it.

Special Counsel Todd Flood says he plans to call two dozen witnesses this month for the preliminary hearing for four current and former Department of Environmental Quality staffers. The four face a variety of charges related to the Flint crisis.

Flood says one witness will testify that a defendant claimed he was being pressured to get Flint’s ill-equipped water plant online before it was ready to treat Flint River water.

“That pressure from up above isn’t a defense for disregard of providing that natural needed element of water … safe water,” Flood told the judge.

Flood also pointed to one conversation in October 2014 between Flint’s emergency manager and two of the defendants.

“(Emergency Manager) Darnell Earley asked Mr. (Michael) Prysby and Mr. (Stephen) Busch is the water safe to drink? Is the water safe to drink? Crickets,” says Flood, referring to a silent response.

Michael Prysby is facing charges of misconduct in office, tampering with evidence and violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Patrick Cook is charged with willful neglect of duty, misconduct in office and conspiracy.

Stephen Busch and Liane Shekter-Smith are facing multiple felony counts, as well as involuntary manslaughter related to a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak that Flood insists is linked to Flint’s water switch.

Two of the people scheduled to take the take the stand are relatives of people who died from Legionnaires' disease.

Four other witnesses themselves had previously been charged in the Flint water probe. All have cut plea deals with prosecutors in exchange for their cooperation.

The courtroom is filled with attorneys. Each of the four defendants has two lawyers at their side. And they were busy on the first day of the preliminary hearing.

Under cross examination, former DEQ official William Brown said municipalities have the primary responsibility of ensuring drinking water safety.

On the witness stand, Brown testified that Flint River water is "substandard to Lake Huron water."  

Testimony is set to resume on Wednesday. It will be up to a judge to decide if there is enough evidence to send the defendants' cases to trial.    

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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