Michigan AG Announces Criminal Charges in Flint Crisis

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Rachel Leven

April 20 — Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette filed the first criminal charges in the Flint, Mich., water crisis against one local and two state officials, charges he promised and environmentalists hoped wouldn't be the last in the investigation.

Thirteen felony charges and five misdemeanor charges, including conspiracy and tampering, were filed in the Genesee County 67th District Court in Flint against Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby, a water supervisor and water engineer for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, respectively, and Michael Glasgow, the city of Flint Laboratory and Water Quality supervisor.

Busch and Prysby were charged with misleading federal regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency and Genesee County Health Department officials, knowingly concealing and tampering with evidence including lead and copper reports, refusing to mandate corrosion control treatment for the Flint Water Treatment Plant, conspiring together to break the law and improperly collecting water samples by directing residents to “pre-flush” their water. Busch faces more than 15 years in jail and $40,000 in fines.

Prysby, who could face more than 20 years in jail and $45,000 in fines, also was charged with authorizing a permit for the Flint plant, despite knowing it could not provide safe drinking water. Meanwhile, Glasgow, who faces up to five years in jail and $6,000 in fines, was charged with tampering with certain lead and copper reports and willfully neglecting his duty as an operator of the Flint plant.

Everything, Everyone on Table, Schuette Says

Everyone is on the table for investigation, Schuette said.

“We will hold each and every person … accountable,” Schuette said at a press conference announcing the charges April 20. “These charges are only the beginning and there will be more to come, I guarantee you.”

He did not rule out that Gov. Rick Snyder (R) could face charges.

The indictments are part of a state investigation regarding an April 2014 switch of water sources in Flint. The switch to the Flint River without appropriate corrosion controls ended up exposing a city of 100,000 to high levels of lead for more than a year (See related story).

Mike Cox, who previously served as Michigan's attorney general, told Bloomberg BNA that the state investigation would likely next look at people on the same level or above those who were charged. Steve Solow, former chief of the Justice Department's Environmental Crimes Section, told Bloomberg BNA that these charges could affect the path forward of the ongoing federal investigation.

State Investigation

In general, environmentalists and others were pleased that criminal charges had been issued.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), speaking at a separate press conference April 20, said she hoped the investigation would follow the facts to hold all individuals accountable.

But environmentalists including Michigan Sierra Club Chair David Holtz and Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter expressed hope that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) would be held accountable. Meanwhile, Snyder issued a statement calling the charges “deeply troubling” and said he would “vigorously pursue any evidence of wrongdoing and we will hold people accountable.”

Cox, who now heads Mike Cox Law Firm PLLC, said some of the charges while normally difficult to prosecute could be easier due to the combination of allegations—if the charges are proved.

For example, some charges against Busch and Prysby allege misconduct in office, charges that can be hard to prove. A jury might think they made a mistake in their jobs, but didn't make it intentionally and weren't criminals. Coupling those charges with claims of tampering with evidence removes that sympathy and could make it more clearcut, Cox said.

The state investigation would likely look at others on the same level as these mid-level operators or those above them, Cox said. Investigators are likely looking to see who knew what, when they found out about it and what they did when they got the information, he said.

The Federal Level

Solow, now a partner at Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, said the state's actions could potentially change the charges that come from a federal-level investigation. Under the Justice Department's “Petite Policy,” if the federal government were looking at these three individuals then they would probably consider whether the state's actions met those of the federal prosecution (50 DEN A-1, 3/15/16).

The federal government can bring the same charges, but generally the Justice Department won't bring the same charges unless some aspect of the state's prosecution doesn’t cover an issue contemplated in the federal offense. But Solow emphasized that “we don’t know whom the federal government is focusing on.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Rachel Leven in Washington at rleven@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The complaint is available at http://src.bna.com/ehH.

Bloomberg BNA explains the Flint drinking water crisis in this one-page explainer. Click image to enlarge.

Flint Drinking Water Crisis Explained

Request Environment & Energy Report