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State drops all pending Flint water crisis charges, restarting investigation

Protestor holding up a sign that says "Safe Water" at a Flint Water Crisis protest
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

After three years, the criminal probe into the Flint water crisis is back to square one.

The Flint Water Crisis prosecution team, working under the aegis of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, has dismissed without prejudice all pending criminal cases brought by the former Office of Special Counsel.

Felony charges against eight individuals have been dismissed, including former state health department director Nick Lyon, former Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells, and former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley.

Dismissing the charges without prejudice means the charges can be brought again.  A statement from Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud makes it clear that's the intent. 

The statement says the previous special prosecutor, appointed by former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, did not pursue all available evidence, contrary to accepted standards of investigation and prosecution.

“Legitimate criminal prosecutions require complete investigations. Upon assuming responsibility of this case, our team of career prosecutors and investigators had immediate and grave concerns about the investigative approach and legal theories embraced by the OSC (Office of Special Counsel), particularly regarding the pursuit of evidence,” Hammoud said in written statement. “After a complete evaluation, our concerns were validated. Contrary to accepted standards of criminal investigation and prosecution, all available evidence was not pursued.”

The statement says the failures led to a flawed foundation for prosecutions, and that prosecutors have now obtained electronic devices and millions of documents that were overlooked or never obtained by the special prosecutor.  

We understand this decision will not bring immediate remedy or relief to the citizens of Flint, who remain victims of one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in United States history. However, we recognize the only acceptable remedy is the vigorous pursuit of justice, which demands an uncompromising investigation of the Flint Water Crisis and professional prosecution of all those criminally culpable. Accordingly, our team will move forward unrestrained by political motivations, prior tactics, or opportunities for financial gain.

In 2016, Schuette appointed Todd Flood to lead the Office of Special Counsel investigating the water crisis. Under Flood, prosecutors indicted 15 current and former government officials. But by the time Flood was dismissed under Nessel earlier this year, seven defendants had cut plea deals and the rest spent years in pre-trial proceedings.

None faced a jury. 

After she took office in January, Nessel appointed a new team to take over the investigation and prosecution.  After several months reviewing the evidence and the status of the criminal prosecution, the new team has decided to start from scratch.

The eight remaining defendants included former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director Nick Lyon.  Lyon was facing He was accused of failing to timely inform the public about an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease when Flint was using improperly treated water from the Flint River in 2014 and 2015.

Lyon’s lawyer says they feel "fantastic and vindicated" by the dismissal of charges in the Flint water scandal. Chip Chamberlain acknowledged that Nick Lyon could be charged again as prosecutors start a new investigation. But Chamberlain says he's confident the probe "will yield no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing."

By dismissing the charges “without prejudice,” leaves the door open to file new charges.

“Our team has already identified additional individuals of interest and new information relevant to the Flint Water Crisis,” says Hammoud, “These investigative leads will be aggressively pursued. Additionally, we will evaluate criminal culpability for all Legionnaires deaths that occurred after the switch to the Flint River, which was never done by the OSC.”

Flint residents remain skeptical about the commitment to uncovering who was responsible for the crisis. 

Mayor Karen Weaver says Flint residents deserve justice.

“How can our community regain any trust and respect from all branches of government when all levels failed them, then you allow the people you are prosecuting to decided what evidence they want you to have?” says Weaver.

In a statement, Representative Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint) said the dismissal is an insult to the people of Flint.

"At this point we’re not talking in weeks or months but in years that have been lost, not in hundreds or thousands, but in millions of dollars that have been wasted," Neeley said. "We’ve been told to wait, to be patient, that justice was coming, but where is that justice today? My city is losing faith in our government, and that distrust was justified today when it once again failed them so miserably."

Nessel is promising Flint residents that this is not the end of the investigation

“I want to remind the people of Flint that justice delayed is not always justice denied and a fearless and dedicated team of career prosecutors and investigators are hard at work to ensure those who harmed you are held accountable,” says Nessel.

A community conversation in Flint about the decision has been scheduled for Friday, June 28. Further details will be announced in the coming days.

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.
Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
The Associated Press is an independent global news organization dedicated to factual reporting.
Before becoming the newest Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network, Cheyna Roth was an attorney. She spent her days fighting it out in court as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Ionia County. Eventually, Cheyna took her investigative and interview skills and moved on to journalism. She got her masters at Michigan State University and was a documentary filmmaker, podcaster, and freelance writer before finding her home with NPR. Very soon after joining MPRN, Cheyna started covering the 2016 presidential election, chasing after Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and all their surrogates as they duked it out for Michigan. Cheyna also focuses on the Legislature and criminal justice issues for MPRN. Cheyna is obsessively curious, a passionate storyteller, and an occasional backpacker. Follow her on Twitter at @Cheyna_R
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