FLINT, Mich. (AP/WXMI) — Five people, including the head of Michigan's health department, were charged Wednesday with involuntary manslaughter in an investigation of Flint's lead-contaminated water, all blamed in the death of an 85-year-old man who had Legionnaires' disease.
Also, the state's chief medical officer, Dr. Eden Wells, was charged Wednesday with obstruction of justice and lying to an investigator.
"Dr. Wells vehemently denies the charges,” defense attorney Jerry Lax said.
Nick Lyon became the highest-ranking member of Gov. Rick Snyder's administration to be snagged in a criminal investigation of how Flint's water system became poisoned after officials tapped the Flint River in 2014.
Lyon, director of the Health and Human Services Department, is accused of failing to alert the public about an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in the Flint area, which has been linked by some experts to poor water quality in 2014-15. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison.
Lyon also is charged with misconduct in office for allegedly obstructing university researchers who are studying if the surge in cases was linked to the Flint River.
Chip Chamberlain and Larry Williey, attorneys representing Lyon, issued this statement late Wednesday afternoon:
"We are confident in our defense of Nick Lyon. The true facts simply do not support the prosecution’s claims. This case appears to be a misguided theory looking for facts that do not exist.
"To that point, we’ve witnessed numerous press conferences by the prosecution that have been intentionally prejudicial to the process and unfair to those targeted. Worse yet, they have made many statements that are completely false.
"We absolutely and vehemently dispute the charges. They are baseless. We intend to provide a vigorous defense of Nick Lyon and we expect the court system to vindicate him entirely."
The others are people who were already facing charges. They are: Darnell Earley, who was Flint's emergency manager when the city used the river; Howard Croft, who ran Flint's public works department; Liane Shekter Smith; and Stephen Busch. Shekter Smith and Busch were state environmental regulators.
Shekter Smith’s lawyer, Brian Morley, said: “It’s my understanding neither she nor the Department of Environmental Quality were responsible for legionella issues. So I fail to see why the charge is being filed against Liane.”
Earley’s attorney Todd Perkins said he’s “very disappointed in these new charges,” adding his client has “done nothing wrong.”
Other attorneys in the case have not returned calls seeking comment from The Associated Press.
Gov. Rick Snyder, in a statement released Wednesday, stood by two of the six individuals charged while also appearing to take a sharp jab at Attorney General Bill Schuette:
Nick Lyon has been a strong leader at the Department of Health and Human Services for the past several years and remains completely committed to Flint's recovery. Director Lyon and Dr. Eden Wells, like every other person who has been charged with a crime by Bill Schuette, are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Some state employees were charged over a year ago and have been suspended from work since that time. They still have not had their day in court. That is not justice for Flint nor for those who have been charged. Director Lyon and Dr. Wells have been and continue to be instrumental in Flint's recovery. They have my full faith and confidence, and will remain on duty at DHHS.
Snyder says Lyon and Wells are presumed innocent and “will remain on duty” at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Lyon’s failure to act resulted in the death of at least one person, 85-year-old Robert Skidmore, special agent Jeff Seipenko told a judge.
The charges were read in court by Seipenko, a member of the state attorney general’s team. Lyon and Wells were not in court. A message seeking comment was left for Lyon’s attorneys. Wells’ lawyer was not immediately known.
Flint began using water from the Flint River in 2014 while under state emergency management, but did not treat it to reduce corrosion. Lead from old plumbing leached into the water system.
Some experts also have linked the water to Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia caused by bacteria that thrive in warm water and infect the lungs. People can get sick if they inhale mist or vapor, typically from cooling systems.
There were nearly 100 cases in the Flint area, including 12 deaths, in 2014 and 2015.
Lyon was personally briefed in January 2015 but “took no action to alert the public of a deadly” outbreak until nearly a year later, Seipenko said.
Lyon has admitted that he was aware of the Legionnaires’ outbreak for months but wanted to wait until investigators in the state Health and Human Services Department finished their own probe.
He told state lawmakers that experts likely wanted to “solve the problem” before they raised it with senior officials in the Snyder administration. The investigation, he said, “wasn’t one that was easily solved.”
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has now charged 15 current or former government officials in an ongoing probe that began in early 2016, including two emergency managers whom Snyder appointed to run the impoverished city of roughly 100,000 residents.
In May, Schuette dropped a misdemeanor charge against a Flint official who cooperated after pleading no contest to willful neglect of duty. And in March, Corrine Miller — the state’s former director of disease control — was sentenced to probation and ordered to write an apology to residents after pleading no contest to willful neglect of duty.
Seipenko said Wells told an investigator that she had no knowledge of the outbreak until late September or early October 2015.
“This was clearly a false statement,” he said, saying she knew as early as March 2015.