Nine former Michigan officials, including ex-Gov. Rick Snyder, were charged Thursday in connection with the Flint water crisis in a case one prosecutor said was about "finally, finally, finally holding people accountable."
Snyder, 62, and eight others who worked under him face a host of charges stemming from a water supply switch in 2014 that exposed Flint residents to dangerous levels of lead and Legionnaires' disease.
"Let me start by saying the Flint water crisis is not some relic of the past," Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud told reporters. "At this very moment the people of Flint continue to suffer from the categorical failure of public officials at all levels of government who trampled upon their trust and evaded accountability for far too long."
State Attorney General Dana Nessel appointed Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy to investigate the case, throwing out earlier charges brought by her predecessor, Bill Schuette.
Nessel is a Democrat, and Schuette, a Republican like Snyder, ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018.
"This case has nothing whatsoever to do with partisanship," Worthy said. "It has to do with human decency, the complete abandonment of the people of Flint and finally, finally, finally holding people accountable."
"Pure and simple," she added, "this case is about justice, truth, accountability, poisoned children, lost lives, shattered families that are still not whole and simply giving a damn about all of humanity."
Odette set bond at $10,000 and ordered Snyder not to travel outside Michigan until at least his next court date, set for Tuesday.
The former two-term governor spoke to the judge from a booth inside the county jail, where he wore a mask and sat next to his defense lawyer, Brian Lennon.
Lennon called the case against Snyder "flimsy," and said that "this entire situation is puzzling.”
“It would be a travesty to waste additional taxpayer dollars pursuing these bogus misdemeanor charges," he said in a statement.
Michigan’s former health director Nick Lyon was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of nine people who got Legionnaires’ disease. He also pleaded not guilty on Thursday.
The Snyder administration in 2014 switched Flint from Detroit's water system to the Flint River in an effort to cut costs. That move proved disastrous, exposing Flint residents to lead contamination from the new supply's insufficiently treated river water.
"Our hearts go out to Flint citizens who have endured the fallout from that decision," said a statement from Lyon's attorneys, who said their client was "innocent" of all charges. "He did not make the decision to switch the water supply and had nothing to do with handling the water."
The other state officials charged were:
- Former Michigan Chief Medical Executive Dr. Eden Wells, also charged with nine counts of involuntary manslaughter, along with two counts of misconduct in office and one for willful neglect of duty.
- Richard Baird, who worked as a senior advisor to Gov. Snyder, charged with perjury, misconduct in office, obstruction of justice and extortion.
- Jarrod Agen, Snyder’s former communications director, accused of perjury connected to his testimony to state prosecutors.
- Darnell Earley, charged with two counts of misconduct in office based on his work as a state-appointed emergency manager in Flint.
- Another former emergency manager, Gerald Ambrose, charged with multiple counts of misconduct in office.
- Howard Croft, Flint’s former director of public works, charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty.
- Nancy Peeler, once the manager for early childhood section within Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, charged with two counts of misconduct in office and one for willful neglect of duty.
"The accusations in the indictment are untrue, and the charges are unwarranted," Ambrose's lawyer William Swor said. "We will aggressively contest these claims in court."
Croft's attorney, Jamie White, said his client is a longtime Flint resident who would never have deliberately harmed city residents.
"He grew up in Flint. He loved Flint. He lived in Flint. He drank this water. His wife drank this water. His pregnant daughter drank this water," White said. "The idea that he intentionally or even recklessly allowed his family to drink contaminated water is preposterous."
Attorneys for Wells touted her longtime efforts to back Native American health initiatives and her current work in contact tracing Covid-19 cases as proof the doctor is committed to sound public health policies.
"The Flint water crisis was an obviously tragic situation, but the understandable concern of Flint residents does not mean that innocent parties should be subjected to lengthy and unjustified criminal prosecution," her attorneys said in a statement on Friday. "Such prosecution does not provide justice to Flint residents, but simply compounds injustice."
Lawyers for Baird, Agen, Earley and Peeler could not be immediately reached for comment by NBC News.
Residents of the majority-Black city of Flint have struggled for years to recover as they relied on bottled water as their primary source of clean water and their property values suffered.
Today, tests show that Flint's water is safe to drink but many residents, skeptical of government officials, say they still don't trust the city's water.
Michigan agreed to a $600 million settlement in August in a class-action lawsuit with Flint residents whose health was affected, establishing a fund from which residents can file for compensation.
Flint City Councilman Herbert Winfrey said his constituents are pleased to see the charges finally reach the top of state government: "The powerful need to be held accountable."
But the lawmaker decried misdemeanor charges against Snyder as a "slap on the wrist."
"You don't put a community in jeopardy for the sake of saving money," Winfrey told NBC News. "The decision to use the Flint River water without cleaning the water up properly was a knee-jerk decision and a bad decision and when you make bad decisions, there are consequences."