LANSING, Mich. (AP/WXMI) — A Flint resident is asking for a grand jury investigation of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's decision to use at least $2 million in state funds for his legal representation related to criminal probes of the city's water crisis.
The complaint, filed Tuesday, alleges that the governor broke the law by violating conflict-of-interest prohibitions and "unilaterally" spending taxpayer money for personal benefit without the authority to do so. It requests that the Ingham County Circuit Court, based in Michigan's capital city, convene a one-judge grand jury to investigate.
Keri Webber, who brought the complaint with assistance from Democratic attorney Mark Brewer, said the lead-contaminated water sickened her family. Her 16-year-old daughter sustained liver damage, her 21-year-old daughter contracted Legionnaires' disease and her husband lost vision in one eye due to a stroke she attributes to high blood pressure associated with lead.
"It's one more salt in the wound. ...He's taking our money to pay for his legal defense," Webber, 46, told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "That money should be going back into the city of Flint. It should be going back into medical care, psychological care, all of these things."
Snyder has apologized for his administration's mistakes that caused and prolonged the man-made disaster, which began while Flint was under state financial management. Eight state employees and one Flint worker have been charged in Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette's ongoing probe.
Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said the spending is "legally sound" because the fees are related to actions taken in his official capacity as governor. She released this statement Wednesday afternoon:
Due to the amount of legal work required, it was necessary to retain outside counsel to assist lawyers from the Attorney General's office in responses to lawsuits and large-scale document production. Since these lawsuits are brought against the office of the governor in an official capacity, it is legally sound to use public dollars to respond to them.
The Republican governor has approved two contracts for outside Flint-related legal services worth $3.4 million, including $2 million for "records management issues and investigations" and $1.4 million to defend against civil lawsuits.
The complaint questions the $2 million contract. A February engagement letter from Warner, Norcross & Judd of Grand Rapids said it would provide Snyder legal advice and representation related to criminal investigations undertaken by the U.S. Justice Department, state attorney general's office and Genesee County prosecutor. The governor's office said the firm is mainly working on document retrieval and production.
Brewer, a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said no one in state government responsible for procurement approved the contract. Snyder has cited a 2011 resolution from the State Administrative Board — which approves state contracts worth $250,000 or more and is controlled by his administration — stating that the governor can approve his own contracts without board approval.
"There's no authority for the administrative board to delegate its oversight of spending," Brewer said. "Even if they can delegate, they can't override the state constitution, which says no public official can engage in a transaction which is a conflict of interest. There's a clear conflict here. The governor personally solicited ... and signed a contract for his own legal services."
The complaint alleges that Snyder's unilateral use of taxpayer money for his "criminal defense" is misconduct in office, a felony. It also accuses him of a misdemeanor violation of a law prohibiting the use of public funds for personal use without approval from Schuette's office.
The request is necessary because neither the Legislature nor attorney general have stopped the spending, Brewer said.
"Since they failed to enforce the law, it's now up to concerned citizens like Keri to do this," he said.
Heaton took exception to characterizing the contract as criminal defense work and said the administrative board that gave Snyder advance authority to OK contracts includes non-administration officials such as the attorney general.
"At this point it's not a defense. It's just responding to requests for documentation, which we're happy to provide," she said.
Democrats and liberal groups have repeatedly said Snyder should use his own money or a legal defense fund — which could include private, publicly reported contributions from individuals, businesses and other organizations — to cover his legal bills.
As of Tuesday, the state was defending itself against 12 Flint-related lawsuits, according to the governor's office. Michigan also had received more than 2,000 notices of intent to sue. Heaton said the law firms were hired due to the volume of litigation and because the attorney general, who defends the governor from suits, also is criminally investigating the Flint crisis.