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New Flint water criminal cases will move faster than former court proceedings

All nine defendants will go straight to trial under grand jury process
Published: Jan. 14, 2021 at 12:18 PM EST
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FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - Prosecutors in the Flint water crisis investigation say the new cases filed this week will move through the courts faster because they used a rare grand jury process to file charges.

Genesee County Judge David Newblatt served as a one-man grand jury to file 42 charges against nine people, including former Gov. Rick Snyder and seven of his top officials. A grand jury hears investigative evidence and decides whether charges are warranted.

Prosecutors call the second Flint water investigation the largest in Michigan history. They relied on work from world renowned doctors and infectious disease experts to help guide the investigation into the Flint water crisis and a related Legionnaires’ disease outbreak.

“We used every investigative tool at our disposal to investigate this case because the people of Flint deserved that we treat this investigation as the most important in the world and that’s how we proceeded,” said Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud, who led the investigation.

The investigation started in June 2019, after investigators appointed by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel decided to scrap previous cases filed under former Attorney General Bill Schuette’s administration. One year ago, investigators asked Genesee County’s chief judge for permission to seat a grand jury to consider charges.

After hearing evidence since January 2020, Newblatt filed indictments against Snyder, seven top officials from his administration and a former Flint public works director for their alleged roles in the Flint water crisis and a related outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.

While somewhat rare in Michigan courts, Hammoud said federal courts use grand juries quite often to consider charges.

“So this is not some uncommon process that is used in a criminal justice system, but it’s also an investigative tool,” she said. “And we believe that the citizens that the citizens of Flint deserve for us to use every single investigative tool at our disposal.”

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Hammoud said an advantage of using a grand jury to file charges is no need for preliminary examinations. All nine defendants will move directly to a trial in Genesee County Circuit Court after their arraignments Thursday.

That is a contrast from the legal proceedings under Schuette’s administration, where preliminary hearings for former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells dragged on for a year.

Defense attorneys were allowed to challenge evidence and testimony during the preliminary hearings, which took a lot of time. A Genesee County judge eventually bound over both defendants to trial, but their charges were dropped before those started.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who led the new investigation with Hammoud, could not give a timeline for when the cases would be concluded. She pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant delay at all levels of the court system over the past 10 months.

However, Worthy said the new cases will be much less costly for taxpayers. Former Special Prosecutor Todd Flood, who worked under Schuette’s administration, was charging the state by the hour for the work of his team, but the current slate of prosecutors all are salaried state employees.

“It was not an outside lawyer that bill by the hour that did this case,” Worthy said. “This was done by seasoned prosecutors who are on salary and get the same salary whether they worked 40 hours a week, 80 hours a week and many 90 hours a week. So, there was no overtime.”

She also noted that the lack of preliminary hearings will lead to much less money spent on legal fees for the defendants, which will come from state tax dollars. The attorneys won’t spend time preparing arguments and challenging evidence a second time.

Schuette launched his investigation led by Special Prosecutor Todd Flood in 2015 and they announced the first charges in 2016. Several defendants took plea agreements while charges were pending against several others when Hammoud and Worthy dropped all charges in June 2019.

They wanted to start over with a new investigation, saying Flood’s case was built on a “flawed foundation.”

The new investigation was under way for 19 months before Thursday’s charges were announced. Hammoud said investigators pored over millions of documents and examined hundreds of electronic devices to gather evidence against each defendant.

“Let me start by saying the Flint water crisis is not some relic of the past,” Hammoud said. “At this very moment, the people of Flint continue to suffer from the categorical failure of public officials at all levels of governments who trampled upon their trust and evaded accountability for far too long.”

She said investigators did not take into account anyone’s position in the government. They looked for evidence of wrongdoing and followed it.

“Government power is not meant as a blank check. It is borrowed by those who swear an oath to faithfully discharge their duties in service of the people,” Hammoud said. “That is why we have specific laws governing the conduct of public officials. Because a seat in government comes with extraordinary powers and equally extraordinary responsibility.”

Neither Hammoud nor Worthy could discuss specifics of any charges on Thursday, citing limitations in Michigan’s grand jury statutes. However, Worthy said the charges against Snyder allege behavior that goes “far beyond” being a failed supervisor or making poor decisions.

She couldn’t rule out more criminal charges for the Flint water crisis.

“If new evidence would come to light, this is an ongoing investigation and if there is evidence that we can prove that a crime was committed, we will surely go where the evidence will be,” Worthy said.

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