Former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was charged Wednesday with two counts of willful neglect of duty for his role in the deadly and ongoing Flint water crisis, news that comes in the wake of a report indicating Snyder was aware of a Legionnaires' disease outbreak linked to the emergency months before he acknowledged it in public.
According to court records, Michigan prosecutors have charged the former Republican governor with misdemeanors that each carry up to one year in jail or a maximum fine of $1,000—a punishment that Flint resident and activist Melissa Mays denounced as "beyond disgusting and insulting."
"In America, a rich white man can poison 100,000 people and only get charged with a misdemeanor and fined one cent per poisoned person," Mays tweeted late Wednesday. "That is not justice!"
"Unfortunately, during this tumultuous time, it doesn't seem that beating, killing, or poisoning of poor, black, or brown bodies is a crime in the eyes of the law, and these wealthy, white politicians literally get away with murder."
—Melissa Mays, Flint resident
The Wall Street Journal reported that "the charging document, a bare-bones filing made Wednesday in state court in Flint, lists only the two charges, and refers to April 25, 2014, as the 'offense date.' That day, Flint officials held a ceremony at the city's water plant to switch its water supply to the Flint River."
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is expected to hold a press conference Thursday morning to detail the charges as well as the findings of an investigation into the water crisis.
The meager but groundbreaking charges against Snyder—the first governor in Michigan's 184-year history to be charged with crimes related to their time in office—were made public following a bombshell report by Jordan Chariton and Jenn Dize for The Intercept, which obtained documents suggesting that 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."
"In addition to willful neglect, investigators working on the case prior to Nessel had evidence to charge Snyder with misconduct in office," Chariton and Dize reported, citing documents and unnamed sources familiar with the probe. "The former criminal team also considered an involuntary manslaughter case... 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."
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"According to the findings of an investigation launched by Nessel's predecessor, then-Attorney General 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," Chariton and Dize wrote.
Evidence indicating Snyder knew of the Legionnaires' disease outbreak—which killed at least a dozen people and likely many more—in October of 2014 contradicts the then-governor's sworn testimony before Congress in 2016, when Snyder told lawmakers he first learned of the outbreak that January.
"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," Chariton and Dize reported. "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 [and other Michigan officials]."
"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," Chariton and Dize added.
In a statement posted to Twitter shortly before news of the charges broke late Wednesday, Mays said she was "very apprehensive that the charges will be minor compared to the damage still being done to Flint residents."
"Unfortunately, during this tumultuous time, it doesn't seem that beating, killing, or poisoning of poor, black, or brown bodies is a crime in the eyes of the law, and these wealthy, white politicians literally get away with murder," said Mays. "These officials make the mistake of underestimating Flint's strength and will to fight. We know how strong we are. So we in Flint need to hold on to some hope that we will once again make history by holding those in power accountable for their actions, just like you or I would be."