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... and when did he know it?

Dec 21, 2016

When I learned yesterday morning that Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette had charged two Flint former emergency managers in connection with the water crisis, what popped first into my head was an image long ago of a young senator from Tennessee.

“What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Howard Baker had asked on national television more than 43 years ago, when Rick Snyder was in high school.

The country tore itself apart over the next 14 months over this, and we all know how Watergate turned out.

There is no indication – yet, anyway – that Schuette intends to go after the governor, not even as an “unindicted co-conspirator,” as Richard Nixon was once famously called.

But we still don’t know for sure what the governor knew and when he knew it, despite all those emails which were released – perhaps, selectively released – by his administration.

In addition to the two former emergency managers – Darnell Earley and Jerry Ambrose, charges were filed against Flint’s former utilities administrator, Daugherty Johnson, and the city’s public works director, Howard Croft.

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All are charged with serious felonies, including conspiracy to commit false pretenses, that could mean twenty-year prison sentences.

... and it is important to stress that legally they indeed are not guilty unless and until they are convicted.

All the defendants charged so far have pleaded not guilty, and it is important to stress that legally they indeed are not guilty unless and until they are convicted.

We also don’t know when the next shoe will drop, nor whose it will be. The attorney general said of his investigation that “we are closer to the end than to the beginning.”

But his lead investigator, Andrew Arena, also said that “there are some (more) people out there who know they’ve done wrong and know we’re coming after them.”

I have never been a particular fan of this attorney general, who has spent millions of taxpayer dollars grandstanding and losing cases over social issues. But he seems to have followed a classic strategy here of working from the outside in, building his case slowly and methodically.

When anyone asks who might be charged next, I have to wonder about four people.

There’s Nick Lyon, Snyder’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, who has already been identified as a target. There’s former Speaker of the House Andy Dillon, a Democrat who was appointed first state treasurer and then as a highly paid special advisor to the treasurer during the run-up to the switch to the Flint River water.

[Schuette] is a nakedly ambitious politician who wants to be governor, and knows he has to do everything he can to separate himself from the administration of his fellow Republican.

There’s Ed Kurtz, another in the parade of Flint emergency managers. Kurtz was the one who actually made the disastrous decision to switch to the poisonous Flint River, and I was bit surprised he was not charged as well.

Finally, there’s Dan Wyant, who was fired as head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality after evidence surfaced of a systematic cover-up and efforts to mislead the press and public about water contamination.

There are those who are automatically suspicious of anything Bill Schuette does. He is a nakedly ambitious politician who wants to be governor, and knows he has to do everything he can to separate himself from the administration of his fellow Republican.

But though he was slow to get started, I can find little to quarrel with in the Flint indictments so far. Now, we’ll just have to see what happens next.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's Senior news analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.