ABOVE PHOTO: Bottled water distribution by National Guard at Fire Station 6 in downtown Flint, January 23, 2016.
By David Eggert
FLINT, Mich. — Prosecutors who dropped charges against eight people in the Flint water scandal explained their decision in a public forum Friday night, telling frustrated, shocked and saddened residents they must look at hundreds of mobile devices and millions of documents that a previous investigative team never reviewed.
Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy spoke to about 100 residents Friday night at a union hall in the city, two weeks after dismissing charges against the former state health director and other officials. The three-year probe has started over, and charges could be refiled.
“We have received information that is absolutely relevant to our investigation that we have never had before,” said Hammoud, who took over the investigation of Flint’s lead-contaminated water in January following the election of Dana Nessel, a Democrat who succeeded Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette. Nessel is not involved in the criminal probe because she is working to resolve Flint residents’ lawsuits against the state.
Hammoud cited the need to review 20 million documents and said her team uncovered in a month, with search warrants what previous investigators had not retrieved in three years.
The prosecutors criticized how their predecessors cut seven other officials plea deals resulting in no jail time or criminal records.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Worthy, who also joined the criminal team.
Some residents were shocked by the massive amount of new materials being reviewed and that the statute of limitations for one felony crime — misconduct in office — could expire in nine months. Others thanked the new prosecutors, agreeing the prior investigation was inadequate.
Arthur Woodson said defendants who pleaded no contest “got less time for poisoning over 98,000 people than somebody stealing a slice of pizza. People have died. … I have PTSD. It’s hard to trust. But what I heard here today: Y’all have been totally honest.”
A tearful Marijoyce Campbell said she had a “heavy heart” after learning about the new documents and being told some materials the previous investigative team had were heavily redacted.
“I cannot believe something like this can happen,” she said. “Please, please tell me some heads are going to roll, that somebody is going to pay for all this murder, all this criminal activity.”
Other people demanded charges against Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, who has apologized for his administration’s role in the crisis, and a closer look at local officials involved in the construction of a regional pipeline that was a factor in the temporary switch to using water from the Flint River. The prosecutors said they will go where the evidence takes them.
“A lot of us are really angry, and we want to see some justice,” said Claudia Perkins-Milton, adding that the new prosecutors “are the ones to do it.”
“There’s a lot of criminals in this case,” she said. “It’s wide open.”
Another resident, Laura MacIntyre, criticized how prosecutors announced their decision.
“Do you not realize how it felt when you released to the press dropping the charges without coming here first? Without any kind of communication?” she said.
She said the public forum should have been held sooner. Hammoud apologized for the delay.
Flint faced a man-made health emergency after lead from old pipes leached into drinking water in 2014 and 2015 due to a lack of corrosion-control treatment following a change in the water source while the financially strapped city was under state emergency management. The switch also has been linked to a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak.
Four of the eight defendants were facing the most serious charge — involuntary manslaughter — including former state Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, who was accused of failing to timely warn the public about the spike in Legionnaires’ cases, and former chief medical executive Eden Wells. Both were in Snyder’s Cabinet. Legal experts have questioned if the manslaughter charges will be revived, noting the difficulty proving that high-level officials directly caused deaths.
Schuette again defended his team’s work Friday.
“We took the steps that preserved the evidence in this case. And our work was not done,” he said in a statement. “Two judges bound significant cases over for trial. And we were prepared to go forward with robust prosecutions. But this is not about prosecutor versus prosecutor. This has always been, and only been, a fight for justice for the families of Flint. We acknowledge it’s their case now and we wish them success in their pursuit of justice for the people of Flint.”