FLINT, MICH. - The state of Michigan has paid more than $300,000 to outside lawyers to represent 16 current and former employees of the state health and human services department as part of the criminal investigation into Flint water crisis, state records obtained Friday show.
As of Sept. 9, the state shelled out $304,524.79 to 17 firms as Michigan's Attorney General Bill Schuette continues his criminal investigation into possible wrongdoing among state workers.
Of the total, more than $80,000 was spent on two firms representing the whole department, which failed to notify the public quickly about a deadly Legionnaire's outbreak in the Flint region in 2014 and 2015, according to a summary of the bills released by the department late Friday.
Also included in the total is $41,926.34 spent so far on the Grand Rapids criminal defense law firm Willey & Chamberlain to represent the department's director, Nick Lyon.
"The state is paying legal fees for Director Lyon just as it's paying attorney fees for 15 other current and former MDHHS employees in matters related to the Flint Water Crisis," spokeswoman Jennifer Eisner said in an e-mail Friday.
In January, Lyon told Gov. Rick Snyder about the Legionnaires’ outbreak at least one year after the health department director knew about the public health issue, according to e-mails released by the Snyder administration. Lyon, who has served as head of the department since April 2015, has not been charged with a crime, his lawyer said Friday.
Attorney Larry Willey, who represents Lyon with his law partner Charles Chamberlain, said "lots of people have criminal defense attorneys who never are charged. You need someone to walk you through the process."
Through a spokeswoman, Lyon declined to comment Friday.
Snyder's spokesman said how departments structure their legal services contracts for employees is up to the departments, not the governor's office.
"Whether or not legal representation is being provided to employees also is up to the department's management teams," spokesman Ari Adler wrote in an e-mail Friday.
At least 91 Legionnaires' cases were detected in 2014 and 2015. Some experts blame Flint's water, which wasn't treated at the time to reduce corrosion, prompting the attorney general's probe. Flint residents still must drink filtered tap water because of elevated lead levels in the water supply.
A former director with the health department pleaded no contest earlier this month to a misdemeanor charge of willful neglect of duty by a public officer in connection with the crisis.
As part of the plea agreement, Corinne Miller, the former director of the Bureau of Disease Control, Prevention and Epidemiology, who retired from the department in 2016, must cooperate with the state attorney general's investigation into the water crisis and provide truthful testimony.
The plea agreement includes references to “Suspect 1” and “Suspect 2,” and says Miller was asked in January 2015 to provide a report about an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in the Flint area that started after the city changed its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. She gave both people information about it, court documents say, but officials haven’t revealed the identities of the two people.
Miller was the second defendant to reach a plea deal among the nine charged in connection with Schuette's investigation.
Eisner said Friday that the department is no longer paying legal fees for Miller.
Todd Flood, the lawyer spearheading the prosecutions, told the court that Miller knew people had died after being diagnosed with the disease, and said she, along with other Michigan Department of Health and Human Services employees, knew that unless the state provided proper notice, “it could be reasonably foreseeable that other innocent victims could be infected."
“Defendant willfully neglected to report the epidemic to health care providers or to the general public,” Flood said.
There were 12 deaths linked to Legionnaires' disease during a 17-month period in 2014 and 2015 in Genesee County, home of Flint, state health officials said. The public wasn’t notified about the outbreak until January 2016.
So far, nine current and former government workers have been accused of lawbreaking on the job, including Stephen Busch, Mike Prysby, Liane Shekter Smith, Adam Rosenthal and Patrick Cook with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Three people from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services — Miller, Nancy Peeler and Robert Scott — and Flint city worker Mike Glasgow have also been charged.
In May, Glasgow pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of willful neglect of duty and is cooperating with the investigation.
On Wednesday, Snyder, who has retained both civil and criminal defense attorneys, expressed support for Lyon. Adler said Friday the governor's position has not changed.
For his legal services in connection with the Flint crisis, Snyder spent almost the entire $400,000 allocated for outside lawyers in February and March alone, a review of records in May by the Free Press showed.
The fees have been controversial, with critics saying Snyder should use only state attorneys from the Attorney General's Office or pay the outside firms using a legal defense fund, campaign funds or other non-taxpayer funds. Snyder says the legal fees arise directly from his official actions as governor and it is appropriate to charge them to the state.
Detroit Free Press