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Flint officials will not face racketeering charges over poison water crisis; Michigan AG disbanded prosecution team building case for three years

4 months ago 52


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Flint collage

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AG Dana Nessel • Flint Water • Gladis Williamson • Former Michigan Gov Rick Snyder

A host of Michigan state and Flint city officials implicated in the Flint water crisis will escape racketeering charges after the state's attorney general disbanded the prosecution team working on the case.

Michigan's attorney general Dana Nessel in 2018 fired the top prosecutors and investigators who were part of the three-year long investigation under the previous attorney general Bill Schuette.

The team had already filed criminal charges against 15 Michigan state and Flint city officials, including four officials charged with financial fraud thought to be behind the public health scandal in which up to 100,000 people were poisoned with tainted water.

Nessel rebuilt a new prosecution team to continue with the investigation, but although several defendants were re-indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter, misconduct in office, obstruction of justice and perjury last year, the racketeering charges were dropped.

Sources close to the case told the Guardian that the officials would have been prosecuted under RICO laws - a tactic often used to charge organized crime groups - but Nessel's new prosecution team has since omitted the charges and taken RICO off the table.

The water poisoning came after the disastrous 2014 decision by Michigan's then-governor, Republican Rick Snyder, to switch the city's water source from Lake Huron to Flint River in the absence of proper water treatment and outdated equipment.

The tragedy and Flint became a symbol of social injustice in the United States, and led to both a state and federal emergency being declared in Genesee County.

In a money-saving move, Flint managers appointed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder and regulators in his administration allowed the city to use the Flint River in 2014-15 to supply citizens' drinking water, while another pipeline was being built from Lake Huron.

But the river water wasn't treated to reduce corrosion, and lead in old pipes broke off and flowed to homes as a result. There is no safe level of lead. It can harm a child's brain development and cause attention and behavior problems.

It is believed that anywhere between 6,000 and 12,000 children were exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead due to corrosion of the water distribution system's pipes, with some suggesting as many as 20,000 were exposed. The lead poisoning of thousands of the city's children threatens to have catastrophic health consequences lasting for decades.

In total, some 100,000 Flint water customers fell ill, prompting several lawsuits and neglect charges to be brought against Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. An outbreak of Legionnaire's disease, thought to be linked to the Flint water crisis, also resulted in the deaths of at least 12 people in 2014-2015.

The chairman of Flint city council Eric Mays, said he believes that Nessel was responsible for having the RICO case dropped. 'Was it a lack of political or legal will? I cannot say. But it bothers me to this day her team hasn't addressed it.'

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for Nessel's office said: 'The prosecution team reviewed all the evidence and pursued all viable charges,' according to the Guardian.

The financial fraud charges initially levied at the officials were of particular importance, as Flint city's financing for the bungled water supply switch - which left tens of thousands of citizens drinking poisoned water - is suspected to have been syphoned from funding set aside to clean up sewage sludge. The city would likely have been unable to pay the tens of millions of dollars needed to make the switch without the fraudulent funding as it was already at its borrowing limit. Flint switched back to a Detroit regional water agency in fall 2015 after Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha publicly reported elevated lead levels in children.

Some critics said the disaster in the predominantly Black city was an example of environmental racism.

So far, the only person to be convicted in relation to the Flint Water Crisis is Corinne Miller from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, who was sentenced to a year of probation, 300 hours of community service and fined $1,200.

Many residents of the city continue to drink bottled water to this day, even though the water system is once again fed from the lake and the lead pipes have been mostly replaced.

For many, the Flint water scandal came to symbolize the country's 'environmental racism,' a term that refers to the disproportionate exposure of African Americans to pollutants in the air, water or soil. Some 57 percent of Flint's 100,000 residents are Black, and more than a third live below the poverty line.

In November 2021, a US federal judge ordered $626 million must be paid to Flint residents whose water supply was poisoned by lead. Most of the money - $600 million - is coming directly from state coffers, which was accused of repeatedly overlooking the risks of using the Flint River without properly treating the water.

Flint resident Melissa Mays, a 43-year-old social worker unrelated to council chair Eric Mays, said her three sons have had medical problems and learning challenges due to lead. Mays said of the payout:

'Hopefully it´ll be enough to help kids with tutors and getting the medical care they need to help them recover from this. A lot of this isn´t covered by insurance. These additional needs, they cost money.'

Attorneys are also seeking as much as $200 million in legal fees from the overall settlement.

The deal makes money available to up to 20,000 Flint children who were exposed to the water, adults who can show an injury, certain business owners and anyone who paid water bills.

About 80 percent of what's left after legal fees is earmarked for children.

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