LANSING, MICH. - Former Attorney General Frank Kelley has resisted criticizing his successors for the actions they’ve taken since he left the office he held for 37 years.
But the involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office charges brought by the current attorney general, Bill Schuette, against Nick Lyon, the director of the state Department of Health and Human Services, for his role in the Flint water crisis has transformed that reticence into outspoken indignation.
“When charges are wrongfully made, it disrupts the whole justice system. I had an obligation to speak out,” Kelley said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. “It’s wrong for this particular charge to be brought against Nick Lyon, who’s got nothing to do with making the decision, it’s just wrong, and he won’t escape the stigma of it even if he’s found innocent.”
The charges are in connection with the Legionnaires' disease outbreak in the Flint area that led to 12 deaths after the city's water supply was switched to the Flint River in April 2014. Lyon, a Marshall resident, is accused of causing the death of Robert Skidmore on Dec. 13, 2015, by failing to alert the public about a foreseeable outbreak of the disease as a result of the city's tainted water supply. It's a 15-year felony.
Andrea Bitely, spokeswoman for Schuette, said, "Attorney General Schuette has great respect for General Kelley, and while sometimes prosecutors disagree, we can all agree that Flint families deserve justice."
Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, a member of the team that reviewed the evidence that led to the charges against Lyon and others charged in the Flint water crisis, said he thinks there was probable cause to charge Lyon.
"And it would have been a dereliction of duty not to file the charges," he said.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver did not return a call from the Free Press to comment on Kelley's call for the charges to be dropped against Lyon.
Like former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan, Kelley wrote an opinion piece for the Free Press editorial page calling on Schuette to drop the charges against Lyon.
“I truly believe Nick is innocent and will be exonerated of all charges,” wrote Corrigan, who also led the state department dealing with social services. “The law just does not support such charges.”
When Kelley saw that piece, “it shocked my conscience,” he said.
He said he's known Lyon since he was a boy and his mother worked in Kelley’s office decades ago. Years later, Lyon would graduate from Yale University and come back to Michigan to work for Kelley as his finance officer. Lyon also worked in the state budget department before becoming the head of the state department that handles social services and health care for Michiganders.
It was in that capacity that Lyon ran afoul of Schuette.
"Defendant Lyon was aware of Genesee County's Legionnaires' disease outbreak at least by Jan. 28, 2015, and did not notify the public until a year later," according to the charging documents.
The switch from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which draws water from Lake Huron, to the Flint River took place while the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. The water, which did not have proper corrosion controls, caused lead to leach from pipes into homes and businesses throughout the city.
So far, 15 current or former state or City of Flint officials have been charged in the public health crisis, including two emergency managers who were appointed by the governor and reported to the state treasurer.
Lyon's attorneys have called the charges baseless, and Kelley, who said he hasn't talked with Lyon about the charges, believes that Lyon was not consulted and had no role in the decision to switch Flint’s water supply.
“I just don’t think he was close enough to it legally or policy-wise to be involved at all,” Kelley said. “I think he’ll be acquitted at trial, but at what expense? At the expense of his reputation and thousands of dollars of attorney fees, just to put him in a position that he shouldn’t be in in the first place.”
It’s not that Kelley didn’t go after public officials when he served as attorney general from 1961 to 1998. His office charged more than a dozen city, county, state and judicial officials on criminal charges ranging from embezzlement, bribery, sexual assault to murder and misuse of public funds.
But he believes the charges against Lyon are not only unjustified, but that “show trials and finger-pointing press conference”will have a chilling effect on attracting good employees to state government.
“If you’re a department head, you’ll be scared to death now,” he said. “Who would take a job as a head of a state department after this?”
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