Michigan health director Nick Lyon charged with involuntary manslaughter over Flint water

FLINT, MICH. - Attorney General Bill Schuette charged two high-ranking state health officials today in the fourth round of criminal charges in the Flint drinking water crisis.

Michigan Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon is charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office, both felonies.

Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells is charged with obstruction of justice and lying to a police officer.

Both are charged 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.

Health department officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Lyon, 49, of Marshall is accused of causing the death of Robert Skidmore on Dec. 13, 2015 by failing to alert the public about a foreseeable outbreak of Legionnaires' disease. It's a 15-year felony.

"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," the charging documents allege.

Lyon "exhibited gross negligence when he failed to alert the public about the deadly outbreak and by taking steps to suppress information illustrating obvious and apparent harms that were likely to result in serious injury."

According to the charging documents, Lyon "willfully disregarded the deadly nature of the Legionnaires' disease outbreak," later saying he "can't save everyone," and "everyone has to die of something."

Charges were authorized Wednesday morning by 67th District Court Judge G. David Guinn, in Flint.

Calls to attorneys for Lyon were not immediately returned Wednesday.

On the misconduct in office charge, a five-year felony, Lyon is accused of instructing an official to discontinue an analysis that would help determine the cause of the outbreak.

Wells, 54, of Ann Arbor is accused in connection with the obstruction of justice charge of providing false testimony to a special agent and threatening to withhold funding for the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership if the partnership did not cease its investigation into the source of the outbreak. That's a five-year felony.

Wells is also charged with lying to a peace officer about the date she knew of the outbreak of Legionnaires' disease. That's a two-year misdemeanor.

According to the charging documents, Wells gave a statement to Schuette's investigators on April 12, 2016 pursuant to an agreement under which she would not be charged, provided she made no false statements.

Wells allegedly lied by saying she had no knowledge of the Legionnaires' disease outbreak until late September or early October of 2015, when in fact she knew about the outbreak in March 2015.

An attorney for Wells could not immediately be reached for comment.

Wells was appointed chief medical executive in May 2015. She previously served as medical consultant to the department's Bureau of Epidemiology from 2004 to 2011.

There were 12 deaths linked to Legionnaires' disease during a 17-month period in 2014 and 2015 in the Flint area.  Dozens more were sickened by Legionnaires' disease, a severe type of pneumonia.

In previous years, six to 13 cases were typically confirmed annually in the county.

So far, 15 current or former state or City of Flint officials have been charged, including two emergency managers who were appointed by the governor and reported to the state treasurer.

Flint's drinking water became contaminated with lead in April 2014 after the city switched from treated Lake Huron water supplied from Detroit to raw water from the Flint River, which was treated at the Flint Water Treatment Plant.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials have acknowledged a mistake in failing to require corrosion-control chemicals to be added to the water. As a result, lead leached from pipes, joints and fixtures into Flint households.

Though lead levels in the water have come down significantly since the state acknowledged the contamination around Oct. 1, 2015, residents are still advised not to drink tap water without a filter. Many still rely on bottled water, which can be picked up free at distribution centers in Flint.

Five of the current or former state employees charged previously are from the DEQ. Three are from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

Outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease in the Flint area following the water switch were tied to the deaths. Officials haven't definitely linked the water switch to the disease, but Schuette and his investigators have come close to doing so in public statements and documents related to the criminal charges.

Lyon was told in September by state investigators that he was a focus of the investigation, Lyon's lawyer Larry Willey of the Grand Rapids criminal defense firm Willey & Chamberlain told the Free Press in October.

"We haven't heard from them for months," Willey said late Tuesday. "I've received no notification ... that anything is in the offing."

Gov. Rick Snyder named Lyon director of DHHS in April  2015 when he created a new agency that merged the former departments of community health and human services.

Previously, Lyon had served as health director beginning in September 2014, Before that, he was the agency's chief deputy director beginning in 2011.

© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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