(Note: Snyder hearing, above, begins at the 27:15 mark in the video)
Former Gov. Rick Snyder appeared in a Flint court this morning and pleaded not guilty to two charges of willful neglect of duty as state prosecutors revealed indictments against nine defendants as a result of the Flint water crisis.
Despite the lower-level charges compared with other defendants, the case against Snyder marked a significant moment in the state’s political history. Snyder is the first Michigan governor or former governor to be charged with a crime for alleged conduct while in office.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel praised the high-profile prosecutions led by her office’s Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud as well as Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy. Nessel had said earlier that she had walled herself off from the criminal cases, turning her focus instead to ongoing civil cases related to the contamination of Flint’s drinking water beginning more than six years ago.
“Solicitor General Hammoud and Prosecutor Worthy’s track records demonstrate their commitment to public service as experienced prosecutors, which is why I appointed them to lead the criminal investigation in the Flint water crisis,” Nessel said in a statement Thursday around noontime. “I trust today’s announcement reflects their professional responsibilities and ethical obligations as the prosecuting authorities in this matter, and that their decisions are based solely on the facts, the law and the evidence.”
The totality of the Flint water catastrophe may never be known, but the failures of public officials who “evaded accountability for far too long” continue to reverberate throughout the community, Hammoud said.
“When an entire city is victimized by the negligence and indifference of those in power, it deserves an uncompromising investigation that holds to account anyone who is criminally culpable. That is what all citizens in this state are entitled to regards of their zip code,” Hammoud said at a press conference Thursday.
“Let me be clear, there are no velvet ropes in our criminal justice system. Nobody, no matter how powerful or well connected is above accountability when they commit a crime,” she said.
In a remote court appearance Thursday morning, Snyder, 62, wore a navy blazer, a light blue collared shirt without a necktie and a gray face mask. He was seated next to his attorney, Brian Lennon, in a Genesee County jail booth as they appeared for the hearing via Zoom.
Snyder spoke sparingly during the hearing. His only words were “yes, your honor” in response to Odette’s question if he lives in the state. Snyder did not say which city or town.
During the arraignment before Genesee District Judge Christopher Odette, Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office sought to restrict Snyder’s travel during the case by surrendering his passport because Snyder is a “man of means” with international contacts.
But Odette only ordered Snyder not to leave the state without the court’s permission.
“I’m not going to have him surrender his passport on a misdemeanor charge,” Odette said.
Odette also set a personal recognizance bond of $10,000 on each charge for Snyder. The former governor walked out of the county sheriff’s office after the remote hearing but did not comment to awaiting reporters and photographers.
“The two misdemeanor charges filed today against former Gov. Rick Snyder are wholly without merit and this entire situation is puzzling,” Brian Lennon, Snyder’s attorney and partner at Warner Norcross + Judd, said in a statement after the hearing Thursday.
Nessel filed charges against Snyder on Wednesday, a day before her office was set to announce new details in the Flint water crisis investigation.
Genesee County District Court records show the charges stem from an alleged offense on April 25, 2014 — the day Flint began using the Flint River as its new water source.
Each charge Snyder faces is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison or a fine of up to $1,000.
Prosecutors have rarely moved against the state’s chief executives in or out of office. In 1975, former Democratic Gov. John Swainson was indicted for bribery while a member of the Michigan Supreme Court. Swainson, who was Michigan governor in 1961 and 1962, was later acquitted of the bribery charge but convicted of perjury. He died in 1994.
Nessel, a Democrat elected in 2018, is scheduled to make a major announcement Thursday in the state’s criminal investigation into the Flint water crisis. Nessel’s office said the outcome of the state’s criminal investigation would be discussed, but it did not release any details about who may be charged or what the nature of the charges could be.
New charges in the Flint criminal case mark a dramatic escalation of the long-dormant prosecution. Critics had once chided criminal investigators for only bringing charges against lower-ranked local and state officials while bypassing Snyder. But some legal experts believe convicting a former governor for his conduct in office could be a substantial courtroom challenge.
Snyder, a Republican who has been out of office for two years, was governor when state-appointed managers in Flint switched the city’s water to the Flint River in 2014 as a cost-saving step while a pipeline was being built to Lake Huron. The water, however, was not treated to reduce corrosion — a disastrous decision affirmed by state regulators that caused lead to leach from old pipes and poison the distribution system used by nearly 100,000 residents.
The prosecution also widen Thursday to include more serious charges against two of Snyder’s former top aides as well as his former health department director.
Richard Baird, a top aide to former Gov. Rick Snyder, has been charged with four felonies – including extortion and obstruction of justice – as part of the Flint water crisis criminal investigation.
Genesee Circuit Judge Elizabeth Kelly entered pleas of not guilty to the charges during Baird’s arraignment Thursday. The basis for the charges was not discussed. Baird’s attorney, Randall Levine, said in a statement after the arraignment that the accusations are baseless and politically motivated.
“Mr. Baird is innocent of any wrongdoing and is being unfairly prosecuted by the state’s Democratic attorney general,” Levine said.
The extortion charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine. Baird, 64, is also charged with perjury during an investigative subpoena examination, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison; misconduct in office, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison; and obstruction of justice, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
Kelly ordered Baird to surrender his passport, although he is allowed to travel for work between Michigan and Illinois, where he lives in Chicago. Bond for the extortion charge was set at a $50,000 cash surety. Bond for the other charges include $75,000 personal recognizance bonds for each of the obstruction of justice and perjury charges, and 10% of a $15,000 bond for the perjury charge.
Baird is a member of the board of regents at Eastern Michigan University, according to Levine.
“The people of Flint are justifiably upset and angry about what happened in Flint,” Levine said. “Their government failed them at so many levels. However, the evidence will show that Rich Baird is not responsible for what occurred to the folks in the town where he grew up. I expect that he will be vindicated.”
Another member of Snyder’s inner circle, Jarrod Agen, the governor’s former communications director and and chief of staff, was charged with one count of perjury during an investigative subpoena examination, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Through his attorney, Agen, 43, entered a plea of not guilty. The judge set a $35,000 10% bond. Agen lives in Alexandria, Va.
Agen went on to become Vice President Pence’s communications director and is now a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, a defense contractor. Agen’s attorney J. Benjamin Dolan did not immediately return a call for comment.
Former health department director Nick Lyon, 52, was also charged Thursday morning with nine counts of involuntary manslaughter, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. He also faces a misdemeanor charge of willful neglect of duty. He pled not guilty to all charges.
The judge set a $200,000 cash surety bond for Lyon on all the charges. His lawyer Charles Chamberlain said his client is innocent and called it a “dangerous day for state employees”
“Our hearts go out to Flint citizens who have endured the fallout from that decision,” Chamberlain said in a written statement. “But it does not help the people of Flint – or our criminal justice system – for the State to charge innocent people with crimes.”
“He did not make the decision to switch the water supply and had nothing to do with handling the water. Everything he did as director of the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services (MDHHS) he did based on the advice of highly trained epidemiologists and public health scientists and experts who themselves were looking at the science and following the data. It’s apparent that once again, the Attorney General has ignored the facts and the evidence.”
Also in court Thursday morning was former Flint Department of Public Works Director Howard Croft.
Croft is facing the same charges as Snyder — two counts of willful neglect of duty by a public officer.
Seated next to his attorney from a booth at the Genesee County jail, Croft appeared for his arraignment via Zoom in Odette’s courtroom.
The judge reviewed the charges and set the conditions of his release: a $10,000 personal bond for each count with some light restrictions on his travel.
Croft, 55, of Grand Blanc, does not have to surrender his passport, but he cannot leave the state without the court’s permission, Odette said. Croft is not prohibited from discussing the case with other defendants.
Croft’s attorney, Alexander Rusek, stressed Croft’s deep ties to the Flint community at the arraignment, including his first job at a Flint McDonald’s and later worked for General Motors before working for the city of Flint.
Rusek noted that Croft was out on bond for 911 days and appeared for all court hearings when he was similarly charged in 2016 by the attorney general’s office in its first set of charges in the case, which Nessel eventually dismissed in an effort to restart and revamp the investigation.
“The probability of conviction, I believe in this matter, is low,” Rusek said.
Also, two former Flint emergency manager now face charges in connection with the disastrous switch in drinking water in the city.
Darnell Earley, 69, was arraigned Thursday morning on three felony counts of misconduct in office, his attorney Todd Russell Perkins said. He pleaded not guilty and was released on a $75,000 personal recognizance bond on each of the three counts, he said.
Two charges were connected to allegations of providing misleading information regarding the quality of drinking water and the third was related to a violation of the Home Rule Act for authorizing more debt than was available, Perkins said.
Gerald Ambrose, another former Flint emergency manager, was also arraigned before Judge Elizabeth Kelly, on four counts of misconduct of office, a felony punishable by up to five years in office and $10,000 fine. Judge Kelly entered not-guilty pleas on his behalf, as he sat silently, and set his bond at $75,000 on each count, ordered him to surrender his passport, and said he could not leave the state without permission of the court.
Gerald Ambrose’s lawyer, William Swor, called Thursday’s charges unwarranted and untrue.
“The claims made in the indictment are untrue and the charges are unwarranted.”
Swor said Ambrose dealt with the earlier charges against him for more than two years and “now he has to go through it again. We are going to fight these charges.”
The beefed-up prosecution targeted former and current state health workers as well.
Dr. Eden Wells, 58, the state’s former chief medical executive, has been charged with nine felony counts of involuntary manslaughter, two felony counts of misconduct in office and a misdemeanor charge of willful neglect of duty. The potential penalty for each charge is: Up to 15 years in prison on the involuntary manslaughter charges, up to five years in prison on the misconduct in office charges and up to 1 year in prison on the misdemeanor
During her court hearing Thursday in Flint, she asked the court to enter a not guilty plea. The judge allowed her to continue to live in Maine while she faces the charges.
Nancy Peeler, who was accused of two counts of misconduct in office and one count of willful neglect of duty, was arraigned Thursday before 67th District Court Judge Elizabeth Kelly.Peeler is a manager in the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ early childhood health section.
Kelly entered a not-guilty plea on her behalf and gave her a $75,000 personal recognizance bond on each count as Peeler remained mute.
The misconduct in office charges are felonies punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, while the willful neglect of duty charge is a misdemeanor punishable by one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Kelly ordered her to surrender her passport and said she cannot leave the state without court permission.
Some originally charged in the case appear to have been left out of Nessel’s renewed prosecution.
An attorney for Robert Scott said Thursday that the attorney general, through the solicitor general, made the decision either in late summer or early fall, not to charge him.
Attorney Mary Chartier said Scott is now retired from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and was the lowest level employee charged in the first round of charges. He sat in a cubicle at MDHHS and dealt with data on blood lead levels, including elevated blood lead levels.
Liane Shekter-Smith was head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s drinking water unit until her firing in 2016, as the crisis in Flint continued to unfold.
She was later one of five state or Flint officials charged with involuntary manslaughter in stemming from the death of an 85-year-old man tied to an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease. The 2017 charges alleged the five officials knew about the outbreak but refused to sound an alarm.
In January 2019, Lianne Shekter-Smith, who was not among those charged this week, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of disrupting a meeting. The case was dismissed a year later.
Some community and religious leaders welcomed the news about the revived prosecutions in the Flint water case, especially charges brought against the former governor.
“Snyder did not protect and serve the people. He did not look out for our well-being, and for that he should be held accountable,” Bishop Bernadel Jefferson of the Faith Deliverance Center in Flint said in a statement.
Eileen Hayes, executive director of Michigan Faith in Action, called Nessel’s expanded prosecutions “a step in the right direction.”
“It felt as though the governor was getting off scot-free and that other players who were also bad actors were getting away with it too. The idea that now, something is going to happen – there is some solace in that,” Hayes said in a statement.
Summary of defendants and charges:
All nine defendants arraigned Thursday morning have been released after posting bond, according to the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office.
Jarrod Agen – former Director of Communications and former Chief of Staff, Executive Office of Gov. Rick Snyder; one count of perjury – a 15-year felony
Gerald Ambrose – former City of Flint Emergency Manager; four counts of misconduct in office – each a five-year felony and/or $10,000 fine
Richard Baird – former Transformation Manager and Senior Adviser, Executive Office of Gov. Snyder; one count of perjury – a 15-year felony; one count of official misconduct in office – a five-year felony and/or $10,000 fine; one count of obstruction of justice – a five-year felony and/or $10,000 fine; and one count of extortion – a 20-year felony and/or $10,000 fine
Howard Croft – former Director of the City of Flint Department of Public Works; two counts of willful neglect of duty – each a one-year misdemeanor and/or $1,000 fine
Darnell Earley – former City of Flint Emergency Manager; three counts of misconduct in office – each a five-year felony and/or $10,000 fine
Nicolas Lyon – former Director, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services; nine counts of involuntary manslaughter – each a 15-year felony and/or $7,500 fine; and one count of willful neglect of duty – a one-year misdemeanor and/or $1,000 fine
Nancy Peeler – Early Childhood Health Section Manager, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services; two counts of misconduct in office – each a five-year felony and/or $10,000 fine; and one count of willful neglect of duty – a one-year misdemeanor and/or $1,000 fine
Richard Snyder – former Governor of Michigan; two counts of willful neglect of duty – each a one-year misdemeanor and/or $1,000 fine
Eden Wells – former Chief Medical Executive, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services; nine counts of involuntary manslaughter – each a 15-year felony and/or $7,500 fine; two counts of misconduct in office – each a five-year felony and/or $10,000 fine; and one count of willful neglect of duty – a one-year misdemeanor and/or $1,000 fine
Staff writer Paul Egan contributed to this report.
Contact Joe Guillen: 313-222-6678 or [email protected]