Putting austerity on trial, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette on Tuesday announced criminal charges against four high-level officials for their role in causing the Flint water crisis, including former city manager Darnell Earley, who made the budget-driven decision to switch the city's water supply to the dangerously corrosive Flint River.
"There are some who would simply wish that the problems in Flint would go quietly away, and there are voices out there who hope the poisoning of the water would be swept under the rug," Schuette said during a Tuesday morning press conference. "These voices hope to simply blame nameless bureaucrats, call it a day and move on."
"That's not how I operate," he continued, "that's not how we operate. Flint deserves better. The people of Flint are not expendable...People in positions of responsibility who broke that law must be held accountable."
Earley, as well as another former emergency manager Gerald Ambrose—both appointees of Republican Governor Rick Snyder—are being charged with false pretense and conspiracy to commit false pretense, which each carry a 20-year sentence, as well as misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty.
Earley, who ran the city from 2013 to 2015, "knew the plant was not prepared to produce water and, nevertheless, allowed it to be provided to the public," Jeff Seipenko, a special agent with the attorney general's office in 67th District Court, told the Detroit News. And despite concerns over health issues, Earley declined to switch back to the previous source, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.
Similarly, while serving as emergency manager in 2015, Ambrose overruled a city council vote to return to the cleaner, safer Detroit system, essentially "saying the people of Flint couldn't afford anything better than the rust-colored, foul-smelling swill being pumped from the river into their homes," as Curt Guyette, investigative reporter with the ACLU of Michigan recently put it. With the state appointment of an emergency manager, Guyette observed, "Democracy had been hijacked, with an austerity-driven autocracy installed in its place."
City officials Howard Croft, who was public works superintendent at the time, and his subordinate, utilities administrator Daugherty Johnson, also face charges of misconduct in office and willful neglect because they "put pressure on individuals at the water treatment plant to get the plant to work, despite having been told it wasn't ready," Seipenko said.
"All too often, there's been a fixation on finances and balance sheets," Schuette said during the Tuesday press conference. "This fixation cost lives. This fixation came at the expensive of protecting the health and safety of Flint. It's all about numbers over people, money over health."
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The latest round of charges reflects the findings of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, whose March 2016 report (pdf) on the crisis declared unequivocally that its causes "lie primarily at the feet of the state by virtue of its agencies' failures and its appointed emergency managers' misjudgements."
But as the pro-democracy group Progress Michigan pointed out Tuesday, the criminal charges against Earley and Ambrose do not rectify the state's "disastrous emergency manager law."
"Frankly, the entire law needs to be relocated to the scrap heap of history or, in the very least, significantly altered until that day comes," said the group's executive director Lonnie Scott.
"The emergency manager law is fundamentally flawed because it takes away the people's right to vote and has remained unchanged since the Flint Water Crisis began," he continued. "Bill Schuette bringing charges against these emergency managers is ironic because he actually fought to preserve this undemocratic system of governing. Given that the only person emergency managers are answer to is the governor, we hope the investigation will continue to reach higher until everyone involved is brought to justice."
Nayyirah Shariff, director of the community coalition Flint Rising, echoed that disappointment.
"Here we are more than two years since the water crisis began and we still have the same draconian law in place, Flint residents are still without clean, safe water, and Bill Schuette himself is fighting a federal court order to deliver life-saving water to residents who otherwise would be without," Shariff said. "Flint residents say that so far they have not seen the results and justice they deserve. This unprecedented man-made crisis deserves swift, complete action to help remedy the harm of an entire city being poisoned."
"Bill Schuette and elected leaders in the State Capitol should not rest until every Flint resident has access to clean, safe water, wraparound health and education services, full reimbursement of their water bills, and the Emergency Manger Law is repealed in its entirety," Shariff continued. "We are tired of the selective showboating being masked as justice. We demand complete justice now and we will not rest until we get it."
When asked by a reporter Tuesday if the investigation will lead to the office of the Republican governor, Schuette said: "Nobody's on the table, nobody's off the table."
"The tragedy that we know of as the Flint water crisis did not occur by accident. Flint was the casualty of arrogance, disdain, and a failure of management, an absence of accountability, and shirking responsibility," Schuette added, vowing: "We will proceed to deliver justice and hold those accountable who broke the law."