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What did Snyder know and when did he know it?

Feb 5, 2016

There’s no question that some of the wilder criticism of Governor Snyder has gone too far. There’s absolutely no evidence the governor, or anybody else, deliberately set out to poison the people of Flint as some sort of racist plot.

Accusations of that sort are inexcusably irresponsible. However, there are legitimate questions about what he knew and when he knew it. And yesterday, new information surfaced proving that, at the very least, the governor’s staff failed to properly inform him.

We learned that two of the governor’s top aides knew almost a year ago that a huge surge in Legionnaires ’ disease coincided with the decision to switch to Flint River water.

The governor himself claims that he only learned about this last month, and that he then immediately announced it. Yet according to a stream of emails released by Progress Michigan, two of his top aides, urban affairs chief Harvey Hollins and the now fired former MDEQ director Dan Wyant, not only knew about it, but knew Genesee County Health Department officials believed it might be linked to the water.

Yet we are being asked to believe that they never told the governor.

Brad Wurfel, the now disgraced spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality, belittled reporters who asked about possible lead contamination in the water. According to the email stream, he did much the same when it came to county health department concerns about Legionnaire’s Disease. So did another now suspended MDEQ supervisor who worked in the agency’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance.

The emails, which you can read on Michigan Radio’s website, indicate they were concerned with politics and public relations spin, not the residents’ health.

And we are being asked to believe the governor was never told any of this till last month. Progress Michigan is an unabashedly left-wing organization. But it is hard to disagree with what Lonnie Scott, their director, said in a story by Michigan Radio’s Kate Wells yesterday.“How many times is the governor allowed to say that he didn’t know before we get to legitimately ask who the hell is running this state?”

Scott added: “Either the governor is covering up his knowledge of this crisis or his governing culture does not allow for important information to flow from his top advisers to his desk.” We now have a situation in which the best the governor’s supporters can do is claim that he was an incompetent administrator who set up a dysfunctional staff system.I thought for the first time yesterday that there now is a chance this governor might have to resign. In fact, state Democratic Chair Brandon Dillon is now calling on Snyder to quit, saying he was either lying or so incompetent he isn’t fit to serve.

Tim Greimel, the House Minority Leader, was a bit more cautious, saying only that if the governor “knew about it and did nothing he should resign immediately.”

This scandal still seems more like Iran-Contra, where President Reagan didn’t pay attention to aides running amok, than Watergate, where a chief executive actively directed a cover-up. But the key Watergate question still pertains: What did he know and when did he know it? Over the next few weeks, Mr. Snyder should expect to hear that asked a lot.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political 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.