News Human Rights

Leaked Emails Show Snyder Administration Provided Clean Water in 2015—But Only to State Employees

Kanya D’Almeida

At the same time that the government was providing its employees access to safe drinking water, residents in this impoverished city of 100,000 people were protesting the foul smell, discoloration, and health impacts of their own discolored household water.

Read more of our articles on Flint’s water emergency here.

Documents released Thursday by the watchdog group Progress Michigan have revealed that as early as January 2015, the administration of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) was stocking clean water for state employees, even as officials continued to assure Flint residents it was safe to drink the lead-contaminated water coming out of their taps.

The leaked documents consist of an email chain between several government employees, as well as a January 7 “Facility Notification” issued by the Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB) in response to reports of Flint’s deteriorating water quality following a switch in the city’s water supply in April 2014.

Referencing concerns over possible violations of drinking water standards, the memo notes, “While the City of Flint states that corrective actions are not necessary, DTMB is in the process of providing a water cooler on each occupied floor [of the Flint State Office Building], positioned near the water fountain, so you can choose which water to drink.”

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At the same time that the government was providing its employees access to safe drinking water, residents in the impoverished city of 100,000 people were protesting the foul smell, discoloration, and health impacts of their own household water after Flint, under the authority of a state-appointed emergency manager, began to use the Flint River in a bid to cut down on costs.

Prior to April 2014, the city had sourced its water from Lake Huron, via the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD). After the switch, water from the highly corrosive Flint River ate away at old pipes, leaching lead into the water supply. The U.S. government has since recognized the situation as a federal emergency, but for well over a year city and state officials concealed both the magnitude of the crisis as well as their own knowledge of it from residents and the media.

Just weeks after the DTMB issued its January 2015 notice to government workers in the Flint State Office Building, including members of the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the Detroit Free Press ran a story featuring residents holding up bottles of red, brown, and yellow tap water and complaining of strange symptoms—vomiting, hair loss, and rashes. Health experts have since confirmed that these are symptoms of lead poisoning, which can also cause permanent brain damage in children.

According to the newspaper, residents had come out to protest authorities’ dismissal of their concerns, most recently at a city hall meeting on January 21, 2015, during which DEQ representatives and a microbiologist from Michigan State University vowed the water was safe to consume and cook with, adding that the discoloration was likely due to “iron and calcium” flowing through Flint’s ancient pipes.

Earlier this month, under mounting pressure, Gov. Snyder released over 270 pages of redacted emails relating to the crisis. These communiqués make clear that while massive quantities of lead—in some households as much as 13,000 parts per billion, nearly three times the lead-to-water ratio classified as toxic waste—were quietly poisoning an entire city, officials appeared more interested in deflecting liability away from their respective departments than working to safeguard Flint residents.

One such memo dated September 25, 2015, and penned by Snyder’s then-top aide Dennis Muchmore, laid the blame for the crisis squarely upon the county, the City of Flint, and the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), which took over water distribution after the city terminated its contract with the DSWD. Acknowledging that water quality had become a “challenging topic,” Muchmore nonetheless said he “can’t figure out how the state is responsible” for the crisis.

In other emails to health department officials, Muchmore wrote he was “frustrated by the water issue in Flint” and said residents were “basically getting blown off by us”—suggesting that complaints about poisoned water were falling on deaf ears.

But despite his apparent concern for residents, rights groups who have been following the crisis closely say that Muchmore himself is complicit in the disaster, given that he had Snyder’s ear for several months before the governor eventually announced a state of emergency on January 5—over 20 months after the poisoning had begun.

In an interview with Rewire, Progress Michigan Deputy Communications Director Sam Inglot said, “The fact of the matter is, Muchmore was Gov. Snyder’s chief of staff, and had already met with residents of Flint over their concerns. So either the governor’s top aide was meeting with residents about exposure to irreversible neurotoxins and not informing him [about it], or else he was blatantly disregarding their concerns—either way, it doesn’t look good for the administration.”

“In a situation where the city is being controlled by an emergency manager, the only elected official in that equation who has any power is Rick Snyder,” Inglot added. “So his administration must be held accountable.”

This past Wednesday, the same day that a group of residents and civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against city and state officials alleging they had violated the Safe Drinking Water Act, Progress Michigan wrote a blog post criticizing the Michigan State Senate for reportedly presenting Muchmore with an award for his work.

“By honoring Dennis Muchmore and slapping a medal on one of the people who failed Flint before doing anything to help the people of Flint, Senate Republicans have shown that their priorities are completely out of touch with Michiganders who need real leaders to solve this problem,” the January 27 post said.

According to Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, trucking in water coolers for state employees mirrors a pattern of officials all along the chain of command attempting to duck responsibility.

“The only response was to protect the Snyder administration from future liability and not to protect the children of Flint,” Scott said, reported the Detroit Free Press. “While residents were being told to relax and not worry about the water, the Snyder administration was taking steps to limit exposure in its own building.”

Asked what the latest leaked document reveals about the ongoing crisis, Inglot said, “This reflects what the people of Flint have been saying all along—that their voices have been completely ignored by the Snyder administration.”

News Law and Policy

Republicans Base Fetal Tissue Probe on Allegedly Falsified Exhibits

Christine Grimaldi

Robert Raben, who once served as counsel to House Judiciary Committee, told lawmakers that the “volume of inaccurate and deceptive information thrown about” would give most prosecutors pause.

Republicans on the U.S. House of Representatives panel targeting fetal tissue research based their latest probe into tissue “pricing” on documentation that Democrats repeatedly called into question during a hearing Wednesday.

As the hearing started, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-OH) interrupted Chair Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) with objections to the GOP-compiled exhibits. “Some of them were created wholesale by Republican staff,” DeGette said. “There was no explanation of the underlying factual foundation for those materials, the methodology that was used in coming up with these charts or some of the graphs that we had, and frankly, I believe them to be misleading.”

Other documents were attributed to a “procurement business,” which DeGette said were irrelevant to the hearing. “They don’t distinguish between the various services of the company, which provides a variety of different specimens, including adult blood and bone marrow for use in biomedical research,” she said.

DeGette said that StemExpress, the California-based company believed to be the focus of the exhibits, on Tuesday submitted a letter to Republicans, with a copy to Democrats, about the “serious, serious problems with these so-called exhibits.” Anti-choice activist David Daleiden’s widely discredited Center for Medical Progress (CMP) videos, which alleged that Planned Parenthood profited from the sale of fetal tissue, featured StemExpress employees.

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A Texas grand jury charged Daleiden with a felony for allegedly tampering with a governmental record; he is also the subject of a California state investigation.

Republican legislators coordinated with CMP officials when the first surreptitiously recorded videos attacking Planned Parenthood were released.

In the letter to lawmakers, StemExpress alleged that Daleiden may have provided Republicans with unlawfully obtained materials, and created others for their exhibits, DeGette said. StemExpress asked that Republicans withdraw the documents pending a review of the House’s general counsel, she said.

Blackburn dismissed DeGette’s concerns.

“The documents have all been obtained through our regular investigatory work,” Blackburn said. “We have had things that come to us from whistleblowers, from subpoenas, from former employees, citizens that have filed FOIA request[s], the panel’s whistleblower portal, as I said, and also, an internet search archive search engine.” Blackburn said that Republican staff created some of the exhibits DeGette ticked through but added that they were based on materials submitted to the panel.

DeGette’s motion to dismiss the exhibits failed in a party-line vote.

U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Ben Sasse (R-NE) made brief remarks before the panel. Shaheen took issue with the panel’s “political motivations” and called for the investigation to end, while Sasse based his support for the investigation on the “video footage of abortion clinic doctors and others discussing the sale of baby body parts for profit.”

Sasse’s rhetoric foreshadowed the rest of the hearing, as Republicans on the panel and their four other witnesses routinely made reference to “baby body parts” in their opening statements, questions, and testimonies.

GOP witness Brian Lennon, a partner in the Michigan-based Warner Norcross & Judd and a former federal prosecutor, touted his objectivity as he alleged the existence of “probable cause” that abortion clinics and the “procurement business” violated federal law. Lennon said he did not have any clients involved in the abortion battle, but he does have another high-profile client, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who is embroiled in the Flint water crisis.

Robert Raben, a Democratic witness who once served as counsel to House Judiciary Committee, told the panel that the “volume of inaccurate and deceptive information thrown about” would give most prosecutors pause.

As of January, GOP officials in 12 states have concluded investigations into claims that Planned Parenthood illegally profited from fetal tissue donation, and each one has cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing.

Fay Clayton, the other Democratic witness and an attorney with Robinson Curley & Clayton, P.C., drew on her experience more than 15 years ago representing a nonprofit corporation that provided donated tissue to medical researchers. The nonprofit became the target of prominent anti-choice group Life Dynamics, which receives the majority of its funding from the fracking billionaires Dan and Farris Wilks, the main backers of Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) presidential campaign.

Providers told Rewire in March that a Life Dynamics document has been used to deceive and intimidate both patients and providers by threatening legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing abortion care.

Ranking Member Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) asked Clayton what should be done about the discredited videos.

“First thing you do, get Mr. Daleiden under oath,” Clayton said.

News Human Rights

Criminal Charges in Flint Water Crisis ‘Only the Beginning’

Kanya D’Almeida

"These charges are only the beginning and there will be more to come. That I can guarantee you,” Schuette said Wednesday at a press conference.

A Flint, Michigan, judge has approved criminal charges against three government employees involved in the city’s water crisis, marking the first time officials have been brought to book since Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette in January launched an investigation into the public health calamity.

The investigative team is tasked with probing possible criminal liability in the Flint water emergency, which began in April 2014 when the city switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the corrosive Flint River. That was followed by a spike in blood lead levels and other symptoms of lead poisoning in residents.

District Judge Tracy Collier-Nix on Wednesday approved felony and misdemeanor charges against two state regulators and one Flint employee, including charges of manipulating monitoring reports and the results of lead-in-water testing, and failing to require corrosion control treatment of Flint River water—a measure that scientists say would have prevented the water from eating away at lead pipes and fixtures in Flint’s aging plumbing system.

State and federal agencies have for months engaged in a protracted game of political ping-pong over who bears ultimate responsibility for allowing some 100,000 mostly low-income Black residents to consume, cook with, and bathe in lead-contaminated water, which causes, among other things, permanent neurological damage in young children.

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Michael Prysby, a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) district engineer, faces six criminal counts, including misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, and violation of the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act. Stephen Busch, a supervisor with the DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water, faces charges on five criminal counts related to the same violations.

Flint Utilities Administrator Michael Glasgow has been slapped with two counts: willful neglect of office and tampering with evidence.

Busch is on paid leave following suspension, and Prysby has taken another job with the state DEQ, the Associated Press reported.

A felony charge of misconduct in office carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, while conspiracy to tamper with evidence carries a maximum four-year prison term, according to a Detroit Free Press report.

“These charges are only the beginning and there will be more to come. That I can guarantee you,” Schuette said Wednesday at a press conference, the Detroit Free Press reported.

“So many things went so terribly wrong, and tragically wrong, in Flint,” he added, explaining that no one has been ruled out from investigation. “Everything’s on the table,” Schuette said.