Michigan’s chief medical executive, Dr. Eden Wells, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office Monday for her role in allowing inadequately treated water from the Flint River to cause an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the city. In addition to the city’s lead-poisoned water, the Legionnaires’ outbreak was one more delightful result of the state’s attempt to save a few million dollars by switching the city’s water source to the Flint River without adequately treating the water to prevent corrosion of the city’s water pipes. At least 12 people died and 79 became sick. Wells had already been charged with obstruction of justice and making a false statement in the state’s investigation of the Flint water crisis, and faces up to 15 years in prison on the new charges.
Wells was supposed to appear yesterday for a hearing on the obstruction and false statement charges, but it was delayed for over an hour and a half while attorneys met with the judge, after which the new charges were announced by special prosecutor Todd Flood. (Yes, the investigation of Flint’s poisoned water has a prosecutor named Flood and a defendant named Wells. Movie director John Waters is so far not involved in the case.)
Lyon and four others were charged with manslaughter in the death of one of the Legionnaires’ victims — 85-year-old Robert Skidmore, who died in December 2015 — because they knew Flint’s water was dangerous but did nothing to warn the public, let alone fix the water problems. As for Wells, we’ll just have to wait until the case moves forward — at a hearing now scheduled for November 6 — to find out what new information led to the more severe charges:
Flood said the new charges were due to “some revelations” that stemmed from testimony during last week’s preliminary exam hearing against state Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, who is also charged with involuntary manslaughter as well as obstruction of justice.
“I really can’t get into the details of it but I think we’d be derelict if we didn’t charge her,” Flood told reporters following the abrupt hearing. “Based on a new review of other documents and testimony that came out last week, we believe that discovery put us in this place.”
The Detroit News notes that in the testimony during Lyon’s hearing, one of the witnesses, former Michigan Health and Human Services chief deputy director Tim Becker, said a January 2015 report on the Legionnella outbreak showed 45 cases in and around Flint. He acknowledged the disease “could kill somebody” and said that a public warning could have been made at the time to protect the public. Another witness, Dr. Marcus Zervos, testified that the state should have given both the public and health providers better information about the outbreak in order to “save lives.”
So it definitely sounds like, as the state’s top medical official, Dr. Wells just might have dropped the ball on her duty to do her damn job. She was already facing up to two years in prison on the obstruction charge, but now that her inaction is being linked to a death (we have no idea why prosecutors are charging the officials with just the one man’s death — it’s law stuff), she could spend up to 15 years in prison for manslaughter (and be fined up to $7,500, which seems weird); the misconduct in office charge could result in 5 years and a $10,000 fine. No, we are not mixing up the amounts of those fines.
Another witness last week said Gov. Rick Snyder actually knew about the Legionnaires’ outbreak in December 2015, a month before Snyder has previously said he knew that, although that appears unrelated to Wells’s new charges. Lucky her!
Dr. Wells is being represented by an attorney named Jerold Lax, a name that truly inspires confidence; he said he had “no reaction” to the new charges, but also that he had “some indication more charges were on the way. He wouldn’t speculate on a reporter’s question about whether the stiffer charges against Wells might be a prosecution strategy to get her to cooperate in the cases against the other defendants: “I don’t want to pretend to be able to read the prosecution’s mind. We’ll simply deal with what he says and respond to it.”
The obstruction of justice charge still pending against Wells doesn’t paint her in the most public-servicey light, either:
Wells had previously been accused of giving false testimony to a special agent and threatening to withhold state aid from the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership if the partnership didn’t stop its probe into the source of the Legionnaires’ outbreak in the Flint area.
Yr Wonkette is not a lawyer, but that seems like a less than helpful way to deal with a public health crisis. And even though they’re facing serious charges of misconduct and of doing their jobs so badly that people ended up dying, Wells and state Health and Human Services director Nick Lyon have been kept on the job by Gov. Rick Snyder. Lax said that his client “wishes she were in a position to simply perform her job,” but that she is nonetheless “doing quite well under the circumstances.” A spokesperson for Snyder said that Wells and Lyon both have the governor’s full support, so that’s nice for them.
So far, nobody in the governor’s office has complained the prosecution of Snyder’s team is a “witch hunt,” but we figure that’s only a matter of time. The prosecution is moving forward, and is likely to be completed before all of Flint has drinkable water again.