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State officials charged in Flint water probe possibly crossed line by questioning scientists

A table filled with bottles of Flint water (both clear and brown)
Flint Water Study
Reporter Chad Livengood says state officials charged with involuntary manslaughter will have to answer questions about bullying Wayne State University researchers studying the legionnaires outbreak in Genesee county.

Michigan's Attorney General made big headlines when he announced charges of involuntary manslaughter against Michigan Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, as well as four others.

Charges of obstruction of justice and lying to a police officer were leveled at the state's Chief Medical Executive, Dr. Eden Wells.

Speaking on Stateside, Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton said the charges against Lyon come from his alleged failure to fulfill the duties of his office.

“We feel he had a legal duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people of Michigan,” Leyton said. “He knew he had that duty and [we feel] that he willfully neglected or refused to perform that duty and we're prepared to prove that in court."

Crain's Detroit Business reporter Chad Livengood has been looking into the state's case against Lyon and Wells.

Lyon is accused of involuntary manslaughter of 85 year old Robert Skidmore, of Mt. Morris. Livengood says Skidmore contracted Legionnaires in June 2015, and died by December of that year. Skidmore’s contraction of legionnaires in June was in the middle of a second wave of legionnaires cases blamed for 7 of the 12 deaths caused by the disease, Livengood says.

“There’s evidence that Nick Lyon knew at least in January of 2015 this was going on,” said Livengood.

Wells is accused of lying to a police officer and obstruction of justice related to when Wells knew about the outbreak, and a study by Wayne State University professors trying to determine a link between the Flint water and the outbreak of Legionnaires cases.

“And [the researchers] do have some evidence that [Skidmore] had … the same type legionella strain that was found at Hurley Medical Center in another victim. And the only commonality between the two victims was that they both were at a hospital that had water from the Flint Water system,” Livengood said. 

Livengood says researchers at Wayne State University were trying to broaden the scope of their research to include more water samples and samples from legionnaires victims.

“They claim that Nick Lyon… and Eden Wells stepped in and tried to question their scientific analysis or judgment,” Livengood said. “And if we’ve learned anything in this whole saga of the Flint water crisis, it’s when the state actors start questioning the scientists, and we get into problems.”

Livengood says there were alleged threats made to the president of Wayne State, by an unnamed senior advisor to Governor Snyder, to pull funding for research into the legionnaires outbreak for attempting to broaden the scope of the research.

“This unnamed senior advisor to the governor has not been charged, and they won’t even actually name the person,” Livengood said. “It kind of raises questions about, have they been picking and choosing who they’re pressing charges against here.”

Listen to Stateside’s full conversation with Chad Livengood, Crain’s Detroit Business reporter.

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