Editorial: End the Flint witch hunt

Originally featured in The Detroit News on March 19, 2022.

It’s time to end the partisan prosecution of former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and members of his administration over their handling of the Flint water crisis. Attorney General Dana Nessel has dragged out and botched a case that increasingly gives the appearance that it’s politically motivated.

Nessel, a Democrat, and her office have mishandled multiple aspects of the proceedings, including sensitive attorney-client privileged documents.

Nessel last year charged Snyder with two counts of willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor. The attorney general is trying to make the case the former governor was negligent in his response to Flint’s lead contamination because his administration approved the water source switch to the Flint River from Detroit’s regional water authority.

If Snyder can be subject to such charges, this opens the door to criminalizing public service more broadly. For instance, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could face her own legal issues over the lead water crisis in Benton Harbor, and her executive orders during the pandemic may have put nursing home residents at risk from COVID-19. Yet Nessel has refused to take a look at the nursing home numbers herself, and last week issued a memo calling further investigation in the matter “unwarranted.”

If Snyder and the other defendants are to be brought to trial, they should be treated fairly.

Snyder’s defense team argues recent developments in a civil case related to Flint have dealt another blow to his right to a fair trial. Last week, they argued against Snyder being subpoenaed to testify in the separate civil trial that involves the city’s engineering consultants. Snyder had already given a deposition in 2020 in the civil case, but doesn’t want to testify now because of the criminal charges he faces. The new media attention in this civil case could “contaminate” a jury pool in the criminal proceedings.

The attorneys also point to the refusal of prosecutors to follow a court order to set up a “taint team” to review millions of case documents and separate out the ones subject to lawyer-client confidentiality.

This has undermined Snyder’s right to a fair defense.

In addition, after 15 months, basic issues such as where the trial will be held have yet to be settled.

Last week, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear a case filed by one of the Snyder administration officials charged with a felony who hasn’t yet had her day in court.

Nessel’s team used an unusual one-man grand jury to review the evidence and issue charges, and contend that precludes the need for a preliminary examination.

Without the preliminary examination, however, the defendants have no access to the evidence that’s being used against them and can not prepare an adequate defense, as guaranteed by the Constitution. If the court rules in their favor, the evidence will be aired in an open court and the defendants will have the right to challenge what is presented and cross-examine witnesses.

The longer this drags on, the more costly it is for state taxpayers, wasting millions of dollars. The state is on the hook for Snyder’s legal costs, which could be upwards of $8 million. And the much-needed outside taint team could run more than $40 million, according to prosecutors.

Snyder and other government officials erred in how they handled the Flint situation. But policy mistakes are not criminal actions.

We suspect an element of partisan politics is contributing to the delay in bringing the cases to court. Nessel faces reelection this fall, and dropping the case, despite its many flaws, might alienate some of her political friends.

But justice is not being served in this prosecution. It should be dropped.