FLINT, MICH. - When Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette told me last summer that he would not rest until he had determined the role everyone played in one of the nation’s greatest clean-water tragedies, he seemed to mean it.
Now it’s clear that he did.
On Wednesday, he charged Michigan Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, who reports directly to Gov. Rick Snyder, with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office. That took him, and us, closer to the governor’s office.
Could Snyder be next? Should Snyder be next? Should this state's residents be expected to believe that 15 of his employees knew about something that he didn't?
Last August, Schuette said: “You take it a step at a time, and nobody’s off the table,”
On Wednesday, he said: "This is about people’s lives and families and kids and it’s about demonstrating to people across the state — it doesn’t matter who you are, young, old, rich, poor, black, white, north, south, east, west. There is one system of justice, and the rules apply to everybody, whether you're a big shot or no shot at all."
Flint has been waiting.
Children have been suffering.
And 12 people died.
People tend to forget that, besides an entire American city not having safe water to drink after the city’s water supply was switched to the Flint River, the Flint area endured an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that resulted in 12 deaths.
This investigation should have begun the first day that Flint residents began showing up at council meetings and complaining to the governor's office that their water was bad.
This investigation should have begun the day Dr. Mona Hannah-Attisha sounded the alarm that children's lead levels were too high.
This investigation should have begun the day the first Legionnaires' death was reported: Robert Skidmore, 85.
Give Schuette credit. The man who was, until this week, widely expected to run for governor and who may be hinging his future on this investigation, is investigating now.
"I could care less (about the governor's race). I'm just doing my job," Schuette said in a phone interview Wednesday. "This is not about politics and gamesmanship."
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said it's about time.
"This is what we've been waiting for," she said. "We wanted to know who knew what and when they knew it and we wanted someone to be held accountable. It's another step toward justice for the people Flint."
Weaver said some people were complaining about the seriousness of the charges. But she couldn't understand why.
"What happened in Flint was serious," she said in a phone interview. "Not only did we have people impacted by lead poisoning but we had people that died. This was a good day for the people of Flint. He (Schuette) said there's more to come, and so far, he's been true to his word that the investigation is continuing. So we wait with bated breath and see what comes next."
It is past time for justice for the residents who have endured the Flint water crisis and, more important, the survivors of Legionnaires' victims who died while the Snyder administration treated the crisis like a chickenpox outbreak.
Schuette declined to say whether he had subpoenaed the governor. Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said he had received no subpoena by Wednesday afternoon, but "wants to testify under oath just as every other witness has."
The charges came on the 622nd day since the governor acknowledged that Flint's drinking water was tainted with lead and that the state was liable for the worst water tragedy in the state's history. His and his administration, to varying degrees, ignored or allegedly hid residents' complaints for more than a year before public pressure forced them to take action. Flint residents still are not confident that their water is safe to drink. And state Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, called on the governor to fire Lyon.
"My office began calling for an investigation into state officials involved in the Flint water crisis in September 2015," Neeley said in a statement. "And we revisited these attempts more vigorously in February 2016 after Mr. (Robert) Skidmore (the first Legionnaires' victim) lost his life. How Gov. Snyder can continue to have ‘full faith and confidence’ in members of his administration who are being charged in connection with the loss of human lives is incomprehensible, and absolutely unacceptable."
Lyon was charged in connection with the death of Skidmore. Schuette also charged Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells with obstruction of justice and lying to a police officer for allegedly knowing about the deadly Legionnaires' outbreak and covering up the source. Four defendants charged earlier — former Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley, former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality drinking water chief Liane Shekter-Smith, DEQ drinking water official Stephen Busch, and former City of Flint Water Department manager Howard Croft — each now face additional charges of involuntary manslaughter in Skidmore's death, Schuette said.
Last summer, Schuette began his investigation in earnest by successfully obtaining a restraining order to keep the Snyder administration from working with personnel at the Genesee County Health Department and a Flint hospital to destroy records related to lead poisoning and Legionella deaths.
So far, 15 current or former state or Flint city officials have been charged.
But the Flint water crisis persists, now in its third year, because of poor leadership from the top of the House of Cards. And sitting atop that house is the governor.
Should he be No. 16?
Contact Rochelle Riley: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @rochelleriley.
© 2017 Detroit Free Press