The Ingham County Circuit Court has denied a request for a one-person grand jury to investigate Gov. Rick Snyder charging taxpayers for his criminal legal defense fees arising from the Flint drinking water crisis.
Mark Brewer, a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, made the grand jury request on Oct. 12 on behalf of Keri Webber, a Flint resident whose family's health has suffered as a result of the lead contamination of Flint's drinking water supply, as well as an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that officials suspect may be linked to the water issue.
Under state law, all the court's trial judges voted on whether to convene a one-judge grand jury, which would have operated in secret. The court confirmed Tuesday that the judges denied the request.
“While we are disappointed, we respect the court’s decision and note that this is not a decision on the merits of the complaint, but simply an exercise of the court’s discretion not to investigate,” said Brewer, a Southfield attorney, in a news release.
“We continue to believe that the governor broke Michigan law."
Anna Heaton, a spokeswoman for Snyder, said the decision "isn’t surprising, given that it was a baseless accusation."
Snyder's office said the contract in dispute — a $2-million contract with Warner Norcross of Grand Rapids — is lawful because the legal advice relates to actions Snyder took in his official capacity as governor.
Brewer argued that Snyder bypassed procurement procedures with the Warner Norcross contract, violated a constitutional provision related to conflicts of interest and spent taxpayer money without proper authorization, a misdemeanor. He alleges in the complaint that Snyder's actions also amount to misconduct in office, a felony. The complaint only relates to Snyder's criminal defense fees, he said.
Brewer wanted a criminal investigation of Snyder's authorization of the use of public funds to pay his criminal defense legal fees connected to the fallout from the crisis, which includes criminal investigations at the federal and state levels, as well as a raft of civil lawsuits.
Snyder's outside legal fees are, so far, expected to top $3.4 million, with $2 million going to Warner Norcross, which is provoding criminal defense advice and dealing with documents requests; and $1.4 million going to Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker, a Detroit firm providing civil law defense.
Heaton said earlier that "due to the amount of legal work required, it was necessary to retain outside counsel to assist lawyers from the Attorney General's Office in responses to lawsuits and large-scale document production," and "since these lawsuits are brought against the office of the governor in an official capacity, it is legally sound to use public dollars to respond to them."
Flint was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager in April 2014 when, in a cost-cutting move, the city temporarily switched its source of drinking water from Lake Huron water treated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to Flint River water treated at the Flint water treatment plant. State Department of Environmental Quality officials have admitted they made a disastrous mistake when they failed to require the addition of needed corrosion control chemicals. As a result, the corrosive Flint River water caused lead, which can cause permanent brain damage in children and other health problems, to leach from pipes, joints and other fixtures.
After months of denials from his administration, Snyder acknowledged the problem just over one year ago, around Oct. 1, 2105, and declared a state of emergency in January. The state helped Flint switch back to Detroit water in October, but residents are still advised not to drink tap water without a lead filter.