Former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder knew about a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Flint as early as October 2014, when there was still a significant amount of time to save lives. That was the accusation of investigators looking into the Flint water crisis, according to documents compiled as part of a three-year investigation and obtained by The Intercept.
On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that Snyder, as well as former Michigan health department director Nick Lyon, and Snyder’s top adviser Richard Baird, will be charged by the Michigan attorney general, Dana Nessel, over their roles in the Flint water crisis.
On Thursday, Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud announced charges against nine state of Michigan and city of Flint officials. Snyder was charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor. The Michigan penal code lists a maximum penalty for willful neglect as a year in prison or a fine of $1,000. In announcing Snyder’s charges, Hammoud said “for willfully neglecting his mandatory legal duties under the Michigan constitution and the emergency management act, thereby failing to protect the health and safety of Flint’s residents.”
Lyon and Eden Wells, the former chief medical executive of Michigan, were also charged with felonies, including nine counts each of involuntary manslaughter. Baird also received a series of felony charges, including obstruction of justice, perjury, extortion, and misconduct in office. (The full charges are detailed at the bottom of this piece.) Hammoud concluded by announcing these charges don’t preclude prosecutors from filing additional charges against these defendants, or new defendants, as new evidence and witnesses present themselves.
According to multiple sources familiar with the investigation and documents obtained by The Intercept, investigators working on the case prior to Nessel had evidence to charge Snyder with misconduct in office in addition to willful neglect. The former criminal team also considered an involuntary manslaughter case against Snyder, according to multiple sources, but had not yet concluded their investigation when the majority of the team was dismissed by new AG Nessel, who announced a revamped investigation in 2019.
According to the findings of an investigation launched by Nessel’s predecessor, Bill Schuette, Snyder was involved in a mad dash of phone calls in October 2014 at the same time the deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Flint was raising alarm bells among state health and environmental officials — yet still unknown to the Flint residents drinking and bathing in Flint River water.
The criminal investigation was originally launched in 2016 when Schuette named a special prosecutor, Todd Flood, to run the investigation. That avalanche of calls, uncovered by investigators, included multiple conversations between Snyder, his chief of staff, and the state’s health department director. Other evidence from the same period — including briefings addressed to the governor that mentioned Flint’s Legionnaires’ disease outbreak — led prosecutors to conclude the calls were about the outbreak, which was unfolding in real time.
Snyder, the evidence suggests, learned of the outbreak just weeks before his reelection in 2014. In 2016, Snyder testified to Congress that he first learned of Flint’s Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that January and held a press conference the next day. Yet in October 2017, Harvey Hollins, director of the state’s Office of Urban Initiatives, testified that he had informed Snyder of Flint’s Legionnaires’ issues in December 2015.
Lead poisoning of children and adults, stemming from a switch of the city water source to the Flint River in 2014, dominated national headlines, but the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak was a more acute disaster that killed Flint residents. While the official death toll from the Legionnaires’ outbreak was 12, a PBS “Frontline” investigation found a 43 percent increase in pneumonia deaths in Flint during the 18 months the city received drinking water from the Flint River. PBS reported that scientists believed some of those 115 pneumonia deaths could be attributed to Legionnaires’ disease, which has similar symptoms to pneumonia and often is misdiagnosed as such.
The Attorney General’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on charges against Snyder and others. Multiple requests to Snyder and Lyon received no response. In response to The Intercept’s inquiries, Snyder’s chief of staff Dennis Muchmore said he was “not aware” of the calls.
By October 2014, six months after April’s Flint River switch, Flint residents had been publicly complaining for months about odorous, discolored water coming from their taps. Residents, including children, were showing city officials rashes spreading across their bodies. In August and September, Flint had issued a boil water advisory. As a result, Snyder requested a briefing on Flint’s water problems; on October 1, that briefing, which listed a waterborne disease outbreak as a trigger that could cause a boil water alert, was delivered to the governor. By October 13, state health department epidemiologist Shannon Johnson authored an email sharing her research and hypothesis that the “source of the outbreak may be the Flint municipal water.”
A day later, on October 14, Valerie Brader, environmental adviser and legal counsel to Snyder, wrote an “urgent” email to Muchmore, Snyder’s chief of staff, and other top officials pleading for Flint to discontinue use of the Flint River and return to Detroit’s water system. In a follow-up conference call between Brader, Richard Baird, who was known as Snyder’s right-hand man, and Darnell Earley, Flint’s emergency manager appointed by Snyder, Brader was told it would be too costly to switch Flint back to Detroit’s water system and that Flint’s water woes would be remedied. As reported in Vice News, after the call, Baird threatened Brader to not send anymore emails expressing Flint water concerns.
But it was October 16 and 17 that stood out to investigators, and seemed to indicate that Snyder knew about dangerous bacteria in Flint’s water in October 2014 — 16 months earlier than he testified to Congress.
The Intercept obtained phone records from search warrants that showed an all-out blitz of calls between Snyder, Muchmore, and the soon-to-be Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon.
According to phone records, on October 16 and 17, Muchmore and Lyon spoke nine times — far more frequently than they communicated before or since. After four of those calls, Muchmore immediately, or soon after, called Snyder. Before those calls, investigators found that Lyon and Muchmore had only spoken once via phone dating back to 2013: in August 2014, the same month McLaren Hospital, a member of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, first detected Legionella bacteria in their water supply.
Calls on October 16:
At 12:32 p.m., Genesee County Health Department’s Stephanie Connolly emailed colleagues about a Legionnaires’ patient referral GCHD received from McLaren Hospital. “There was no connection with any previous admits to McLaren,” Connolly wrote, adding that the patient had “no travel hx, no recent dental work, no visits to the hospital per the client’s nurse.” Connolly’s email flew in the face of the Snyder administration’s eventual message that the source of the outbreak was McLaren Hospital — not Flint’s water system.
On the morning of October 17, county health department supervisor Jim Henry and colleagues spoke with Flint water plant officials about the presence of Legionella in Flint. In response to the county’s concerns, Flint water officials acknowledged the city was not testing for Legionella specifically and that the “distribution system has areas of concern.”
And the previous day’s calls between Snyder, Muchmore, and Lyon continued.
At 4:31 p.m., Susan Bohm, an epidemiologist with the state health department, emailed epidemiologist Shannon Johnson, who four days earlier had shared her hypothesis that Flint’s municipal water was the source of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak. Bohm wrote to Johnson that Liane Shekter-Smith, the chief of Michigan Department of Environmental Water Quality’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, had just called her, revealing that Genesee County Health Department called MDEQ about the Legionnaires’ outbreak and that “the Governor’s Office had been involved” in Flint’s water problems. Shekter-Smith warned that an imminent public announcement “about the quality of the water would certainly inflame the situation.”
An hour and a half after Bohm’s email about Shekter Smith’s Legionella-related call, Lyon — Bohm’s ultimate boss at the health department — and Muchmore spoke for the ninth time in two days. Muchmore immediately called the governor after.
Criminal investigators saw the entire sequence of calls, coupled with the resulting public silence and denials of any knowledge, as Snyder and his top officials working to stop news of the Legionnaires’ outbreak from emerging. Of the many calls that stood as red flags, Muchmore’s two calls with Michigan Health and Hospital Association, or MHA, stood out to investigators because of MHA’s links to McLaren, the hospital where Legionella bacteria was detected. McLaren Flint was part of MHA’s long list of member hospitals. The board of directors for MHA’s Health PAC was chaired by McLaren executive Thomas DeFauw; Gregory Lane, a McLaren Health Care senior vice president, also sat on the PAC’s board.
Special prosecutor Flood subpoenaed MHA in late 2016 to produce relevant documents pertaining to its communications with the Snyder administration about Legionella. In his petition to subpoena MHA, which was obtained by The Intercept, Flood wrote that MHA joined Snyder and his top officials in keeping the information about the outbreak from the public.
“This evidence shows the Governor, his administration, Director Lyon, and the MHA knew about this outbreak of Legionnaires’ in October 2014, and were interested in keeping the information from going public,” Flood wrote in reference to the avalanche of calls.
Flood went on to note that MHA and local water officials at MDEQ held a call on Flint’s Legionnaires’ outbreak on March 19, 2015. At the bottom of the meeting update, Janice Jones, MHA’s office coordinator, shared details of a call she received from MDEQ official Carrie Monosmith.
“Carrie has indicated that [the Legionnaires’ outbreak] is expected to hit the newspapers in Flint concerning the situation with McLaren and it is possible that MHA may be called,” Jones wrote.
“The content of this message conveyed by Ms. Monosmith is very concerning, because not only had the outbreak still not been disclosed to the public at this time, but the DEQ was proactively contacting the MHA in the event the news, ‘hit the papers,’” Flood wrote. “Moreover, Ms. Monosmith was not contacting the MHA to give them a heads-up that they, the State agency would be alerting the public. Instead she was issuing this warning because the situation had been intentionally suppressed from the public’s knowledge, and the MDEQ was trying to prepare for it getting out.”
In response to questions from The Intercept, Flood responded: “Ethically and legally the material you claim to have raises concerns. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the questions you are asking.”
In response to The Intercept’s request for comment, MHA spokesperson Ruthanne Sudderth wrote: “Given the recent announcement of pending legal charges stemming from the Flint water matter, I can only advise you of our policy that the MHA does not comment on pending or ongoing legal matters.”
In addition to the onslaught of calls, criminal investigators uncovered meeting notes from an October 22, 2014, Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance managers meeting. On October 17, its chief, Liane Shekter-Smith, had warned MDHHS’s Bohm via email against the health department publicly announcing Flint’s Legionnaires’ outbreak while revealing the “Governor’s office had been involved” in Flint’s water problems.
According to the managers’ meeting notes from October 22, ODWMA officials discussed “Governor’s Briefings” that presumably had been, or would be, sent to Snyder. Those briefings included the mention of “an increase in Legionella” in Genesee County.
“Governor’s Briefings: Two boil water advisories in Flint, lead to all advisories to be sent to Director. Governor’s office to be informed of what’s happening. Coliform issue led to residual issue. GM now has issue with using Flint water and chloride. Genesee County seen an increase in Legionella, Maclaren has detected Legionella. Not detected in Maclaren incoming water.”
When the criminal team asked Dan Wyant, MDEQ’s director, about a governor’s briefings that mentioned Legionella, he became emotional, according to multiple sources — potentially indicating he had seen the document before. Wyant did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
A briefing memo like this would have been unlikely to get past Snyder. He received most materials directly to his iPad and was, according to sources, an information sponge who read everything sent to him.
Seven days later, on October 29, Wyant traveled to Flint to meet with Earley, the emergency manager, and other city officials. Daugherty Johnson, a Flint water plant official, told investigators that Legionella in Flint was discussed in the meeting, according to multiple sources. Johnson also shared that Stephen Busch, an MDEQ drinking water supervisor, went into full-on damage control mode, reportedly warning that the Legionella issue “may blow” and become a public PR nightmare for the Snyder administration.
Two days after the meeting, Earley sent a thank-you email to Wyant for coming to Flint to discuss the city’s water issues. Earley then forwarded the email he sent to Wyant to Snyder’s right-hand man Richard Baird, offering to debrief him on the meeting. Baird responded boisterously, “Very good! Let’s get together after the election. Great work!”
Baird, who allegedly attempted to pay off sick Flint residents in order to silence them, is one of the officials set to be charged by the state attorney general, according to news reports. Baird did not respond to request for comment.
In April, the Flint water crisis enters its seventh year. Despite news headlines declaring Flint’s water safe to drink, residents who The Intercept has spoken to challenge such proclamations.
Melissa Mays, a Flint resident and leading water activist, challenged the state’s claims that Flint’s water is safe. “As of right now, the damaged City’s distribution mains still remain in the ground and our corroded interior plumbing, fixtures and appliances have not been replaced,” Mays said. “As long as our water flows through these pipes up into our taps, it will continue to be contaminated.”
While charges against former Gov. Rick Snyder, former health director Nick Lyon, Richard Baird, and others appear imminent, the finalizing of a $641 million civil settlement negotiated between Nessel and attorneys representing Flint residents also appears imminent. On Monday, nearly two dozen Flint residents held a press conference to oppose the settlement, believing it is insufficient and won’t be allocated fairly.
In response to news reports that Snyder will be charged with willful neglect of duty, Mays didn’t hold back. “The rumors that former Governor Rick Snyder is only going to be charged with a misdemeanor is BEYOND disgusting and insulting,” Mays wrote. “The Attorney General choosing to charge the man who made himself the unilateral dictator over my City, poison us, lie to us and watch us suffer with a small misdemeanor just proves to us in Flint that if you are a rich white man, it’s not considered an ACTUAL crime to poison poor, black and brown communities for profit, it’s only a minor fine and a slap on the wrist.”
Update: January 14, 2021
This story has been updated with the charges filed by the Michigan attorney general’s office. The charges are as follows:
Former Governor Snyder was charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty, each punishable by up to a year in prison and $1,000 fine.
Richard Baird, known as the governor’s right hand, received a series of felony charges: one count of misconduct in office, a five-year felony, for “improperly using state resources and state personnel”; one count of perjury, a 15-year felony, for lying under oath; one count of obstruction of justice, a five-year felony, for “attempting to interfere or influence ongoing legal proceedings relating to the Flint water crisis”; and one count of extortion, a 20-year felony, for “threatening a state-appointed research team during their investigation into the source of the Legionnaires’ outbreak in Genesee County.
Nick Lyon, the former director of MDHHS, was charged with nine counts of involuntary manslaughter, each a 15-year felony, and one count of willful neglect of duty, a one-year misdemeanor. Hammoud cited Lyon’s “failures and grossly negligent performance of his legal duties while director of MDHHS to protect the health of the citizens of Michigan in accordance with the public health code.”
Eden Wells, the former chief medical executive of Michigan, also received nine counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of willful neglect of duty. For Wells, two counts of misconduct in office were tacked on — each a five year felony — for attempting to prevent information on the Legionella outbreak from reaching the public.
Jarrod Agen, Snyder’s former chief of staff and communications director, was charged with one count of perjury, a 15-year felony, for giving false statements under oath. Agen had also served as Vice President Pence’s deputy chief of staff and communications director.
Two former Snyder-appointed Flint emergency managers, Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, were charged with misconduct in office, a five-year felony. Earley received three counts while Ambrose received four counts. Charges against both were connected to their actions related to the city’s finances.
Nancy Peeler, former MDHHS early-childhood health official, was charged with two counts of misconduct in office, each a five-year felony, and one count of misdemeanor willful neglect of duty, for “concealing and later misrepresenting data related to elevated to blood lead levels of children in the city of Flint.”
Howard Croft, former Flint Public Works Director, was charged with two counts of willful neglect duty, a misdemeanor of up to one year in prison, for failing to ensure the safety of the Flint water supply.