FLINT, MICH. - Gov. Rick Snyder knew about Flint-area outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease in December 2015, the month before he said he found out, according to testimony Friday from one of his top aides.
Harvey Hollins III, Snyder's point man for the state's response to the Flint water crisis, revealed the information in a Flint courtroom. Hollins said he told Snyder in a phone call in December 2015, which contradicts what Snyder has said previously: that he first learned of instances of Legionnaires' disease in Flint in January 2016.
“As soon as I became aware of it, we held a press conference the next day,” Snyder said in a March 2016 interview before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that was played in court.
The news conference was held on Jan. 13, 2016.
Harvey Hollins III testified in the preliminary examination of Michigan Department of Health of Human Services Director Nick Lyon on Oct. 6, 2017. (Photo: Elisha Anderson/Detroit Free Press)
Hollins testified that he and Richard Baird, a top aide to Snyder, met with the members of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force in December 2015, shortly before Christmas, about a report the task force was working on related to the water crisis.
Hollins said that after the meeting, he called the governor and asked whether he was aware of the outbreaks. “He was not aware of that,” Hollins testified.
The date of the phone call in December 2015 wasn’t given. A spokeswoman for Snyder’s office declined to comment on the contradiction.
“We don't comment on the investigation or the judicial proceedings,” Anna Heaton said in an e-mail to the Free Press.
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said in a statement that Hollins' testimony "raises concerning questions about the governor’s statements that need to be answered." He said he has asked the Oversight and Government Reform committee to look into the conflicting statements immediately.
During his testimony Friday, Hollins said Snyder gave further instructions: Snyder wanted Baird to contact Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and for Hollins to contact Jarrod Agen, who had recently been promoted to Snyder’s chief of staff, but no longer works for the governor.
Hollins, director of Michigan's Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives, said he doesn’t remember meeting with Snyder at any other time to talk to him about it. Shortly after that, testimony abruptly ended for the day.
The testimony came during the fourth day of Lyon’s preliminary examination. Lyon faces felony charges of involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office in connection with Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s investigation into the Flint water crisis. The city's drinking water became contaminated when corrosion-control chemicals weren’t added after the water source change, causing lead to leach from pipes, joints and fixtures.
The hearing will determine if Lyon’s case proceeds to trial in Genesee County Circuit Court.
At issue in the case is an unprecedented outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in the Flint area that the public was not told of until about a year after several top-ranking state health officials found out about it. The disease, which is a severe type of pneumonia and started after Flint changed its water supply source to the Flint River in April 2014, is linked to the deaths of at least a dozen people in 2014 and 2015.
Lyon is accused of causing the death of an 85-year-old man, who died in December 2015, six months after he tested positive for Legionnaires' disease. Schuette alleges that Lyon failed to alert the public about the outbreak when he knew that another outbreak was foreseeable, and misled and withheld information on the outbreak from Snyder.
Lyon's attorneys, though, have said the facts don't support the prosecution's claims.
During the hearing Friday, Hollins testified that he first heard about Legionella, a bacteria often found in water that can lead to Legionnaires’ disease, in an e-mail sent by a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in March 2015. He said he didn’t tell Snyder at that point, and that he believed it had been done already by officials with the Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services departments.
Todd Flood, the special counsel handing the case for Schuette's office, probed whose job it would be to tell the governor about a health-related issue, and Hollins said it would be Lyon's.
In previous testimony in the case, a retired state epidemiologist testified that she told Lyon of the outbreak in January 2015 and assumed the information would go to the governor’s office. The information didn't come out publicly, though, until Snyder’s news conference in January 2016.
A Flint doctor appointed to a task force looking at the city’s water crisis also took the stand Friday. Dr. Lawrence Reynolds said he spoke with Lyon in December 2015 or January 2016 and called Lyon’s answers to questions “glib and dismissive.”
Lyon was asked if there was any information he wanted to share on Legionella or a possible outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, Reynolds testified. “His response was: ‘That’s over,’” said Reynolds, a retired pediatrician.
The hearing is set to resume Nov. 1 before 67th District Judge David Goggins.
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