This story originally appeared in Common Dreams on Jan. 17, 2022. It is shared here with permission under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) license.
Prosecutors investigating Flint’s contaminated water crisis were pursuing a racketeering case against public officials whose austerity-driven policies caused the health catastrophe, but after newly elected Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel took over in 2019, those charges were dropped.
That’s according to investigative journalist Jordan Chariton and Pulitzer prize-winning reporter Charlie LeDuff’s explosive new story, which was published Monday in The Guardian and sparked fresh questions about holding perpetrators responsible for the ongoing calamity.
The Flint water crisis began nearly eight years ago when an unelected emergency manager appointed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, made the cost-cutting decision to switch the city’s tap water source from Detroit’s municipal supply to the Flint River, whose highly corrosive water caused aging pipes to leak lead into thousands of homes.
From 2016 to 2018, prosecutors working under Michigan’s Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette were reportedly preparing to use a federal anti-organized crime statute—the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act—against state and city officials who, along with JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, played a role in the poisoning of Flint. But after those investigators were dismissed and the probe resumed under a new team, the RICO case never materialized.
Environmental justice defender Monica Lewis-Patrick said Monday that “water warriors NEED to know” why Nessel “dropped the RICO charges in the Flint water crisis.”
When Republican Schuette was running for governor against then-Democratic candidate Gretchen Whitmer in 2018, Nessel, a Democrat, characterized the term-limited AG she was aiming to replace as “an opportunist who has used the crisis to further his political ambitions via a series of politically charged show trials” and vowed to revamp the investigation.
Soon after winning and taking office, Nessel fired the lead prosecutors and investigators working on the Schuette-launched probe, and restarted the inquiry with a new team.
“At that point,” Chariton and LeDuff reported, “the prosecution team assembled by Schuette had been working for nearly three years—and filed criminal charges against 15 Michigan state and Flint city officials, including four officials charged with financial fraud that prosecutors said triggered the water crisis.”
“But when Nessel relaunched the investigation,” the pair wrote, “her office dropped charges against top state and city officials, citing flaws in the Schuette-era investigation. In 2021, Nessel’s office recharged several of those defendants—with a new round of indictments that included involuntary manslaughter, misconduct in office, obstruction of justice, extortion, and perjury. But gone were the financial fraud charges.”
Last November, a federal judge approved a $626 million settlement for thousands of lead poisoning victims in Flint, but Chariton and LeDuff wrote Monday that “the disappearance of the financial fraud charges is significant because the bond deal that allowed the city of Flint to switch its water supply had been heavily investigated by the Schuette-era prosecution.”
According to The Guardian:
In 2014, Flint needed to borrow nearly $100m to join the proposed Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), a new regional system that Flint would join as both a customer and part owner. But at the time, the city was broke and at its borrowing limit.
A state-issued environmental order allowed the city to get around its debt limit and access $85m in funding, money earmarked for an “environmental calamity”—in this case, the cleanup of a local lime sludge pit. But the prosecution under Schuette alleged that the money supplied by this order for the cleanup was redirected for other purposes instead allowing Flint to issue tens of millions of dollars in bonds to join the KWA.
The allegedly fraudulent environmental order also mandated that the city of Flint use the Flint River as its water source while the KWA pipeline was under construction. It outlined tens of millions of dollars in upgrades needed for the city’s water plant so that the plant could safely treat Flint River water for residents to drink. The problem: updates were nowhere near completed when the city switched its water supply to the Flint River in April 2014. In addition, a failure to add proper corrosion control chemicals into the Flint River water supply resulted in lead leaching off Flint’s older pipes and poisoning residents’ drinking water.
Peter Hammer, a Wayne State law professor who authored an extensive civil rights report on the Flint water crisis, told The Guardian that he “never understood why the attorney general disrupted the initial investigation, dropped the initial charges, or set a different direction in her new charges that chart a course away from the issues of financing the KWA pipeline.”
“Her decisions mean that some of the most important questions relating to the crisis—the political and economic forces driving the KWA pipeline—are not being addressed,” said Hammer. “This adds a new tragedy for the people of Flint who deserve to know the root causes of their suffering and to hold any financial wrongdoing accountable.”
Responding to the new reporting, progressive podcast host Krystal Ball tweeted that “political corruption poisoned Flint and political corruption shielded the wrongdoers from accountability.”
According to Flint City Council Chair Eric Mays, who closely followed the criminal probe before and after 2018, “Nessel let it go.”
“Was it a lack of political or legal will? I cannot say,” Mays told The Guardian. “But it bothers me to this day her team hasn’t addressed it.”