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Taxpayer tab on Flint legal battles is $15.5 million and rising

The 15 people charged in the Flint water crisis so far.
Booking photos from the Michigan AGs office and others.
The 15 people charged in the Flint water crisis so far.

Taxpayers from the state of Michigan are funding both the defense and the prosecution in the Flint water crisis investigation.

The tab so far? $15.5 million.

The legal fees alone are more than three times the amount state-appointed emergency managers hoped to save the city when they switched Flint's source of drinking water in 2014. According to Ron Fonger of MLive, they hoped to save "roughly $5 million in less than two years" by switching from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in the spring of 2014.

The $15.5 million in legal costs are a result of Attorney General Bill Schuette’s investigation into what went wrong and who was responsible for the mistakes around the water source switch. That switch, of course, ended up costing hundreds of millions more as it lead to a massive public health crisis and extensive infrastructure repairs.

And the legal costs are growing. A $500,000 increase for the defense contracts of both Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director Nick Lyon and the state’s chief medical examiner Dr. Eden Wells is currently pending, potentially adding $1 million more to their legal fees.

Three government agencies are paying for their employees’ defense fees: the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and the governor's office.

As of September, the MDEQ has spent $4.57 million on civil and criminal defense, Governor Snyder's office has spent $4.53 million, and the MDHHS has spent $1.6 million (not counting the Lyon/Wells potential increase).

Attorney General Bill Schuette's office has spent $4.5 million on the prosecution of civil and criminal cases.

The State Administrative Board supervises the administrative activities of all state departments and agencies, and is tasked with approving the departments’ legal spending limits.

Fifteen current and former state and local officials have been charged with 51 criminal charges for their roles that led to the crisis. But the legal expenses go beyond those charged with a crime.

The $4.53 million spent in legal costs by the governor's office is one example. No one in Gov. Snyder's office has been charged with a crime. Spokeswoman Anna Heaton says the legal fees cover "the entire executive office – mostly for document collection, review and production."

The legal expenses in the governor's office were not broken down by individual. But civil and criminal legal expenses were broken down by individual by the MDEQ and MDHHS.

According to the documents received by Michigan Radio so far, the individuals with the highest legal expenses were from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality - officials in that agency were largely responsible for the decisions that led to the water crisis in Flint.

Here are the top three legal fees to date:

  • $1.04 million in legal fees to defend Stephen Busch, former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality District 8 Water Supervisor. Busch has been charged with misconduct in office, tampering with evidence, involuntary manslaughter, and monitoring and treatment violations. He is on paid administrative leave.
  • $826,835 in legal fees to defend Brad Wurfel, former spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality. Wurfel resigned in December 2015, shortly after news broke nationally about the crisis. He has not been charged with a crime.
  • $817,028 in legal fees to defend Dan Wyant, former Director of the Department of Environmental Quality. Wyant also resigned in December 2015. He has not been charged with a crime.

Flint expenses not included

The $15.5 million spent on the investigation so far does not include the defense of local Flint officials. Michigan Radio reached out to the city for those expenses and we were told to submit a FOIA request for the information.

The city is being reimbursed by the state for some legal costs as the state deems fit. According to a representative in the city's finance department, the city has invoiced the state of Michigan $300,000 for reimbursement of emergency manager legal fees.

In an email to Michigan Radio, state treasury department spokesman Ron Leix said, "To date, the Michigan Department of Treasury has reimbursed the city of Flint $90,000 for emergency manager-related legal fees. Specifically, this was for Darnell Earley when he testified in Washington D.C."

*Correction - An earlier version of this post had a rather large math error. We pegged Brad Wurfel and Dan Wyant's legal fees at $827 million and $817 million respectively. Their legal fees are not in the hundreds of millions of dollars, they are in the hundred of thousands of dollars. It's been corrected above. 

Mark Brush was the station's Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.
Emma is a communications specialist with the digital team at Michigan Radio. She works across all departments at Michigan Radio, with a hand in everything from digital marketing and fundraising to graphic design and website maintenance. She also produces the station's daily newsletter, The Michigan Radio Beat.
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