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Why 5 officials were charged with involuntary manslaughter

Jun 15, 2017

New charges in the Flint water crisis are connected to the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak.

Five current and former government officials are now facing involuntary manslaughter charges in the Flint water crisis. The charges are in connection with a Legionnaires' disease outbreak during the height of the crisis. Legionnaires’ disease is a serious form of pneumonia caused by bacteria.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced manslaughter charges against Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, former emergency manager Darnell Earley and three others:

  • Howard Croft, former Director of Public Works in Flint
  • Liane Shekter-Smith, former Chief of the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance
  • Stephen Busch, former supervisor of the Lansing District Office, Community Water Supply Program, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

On Wednesday, Attorney General Bill Schuette announced five charges of involuntary manslaughter in the criminal investigation of the Flint water crisis.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

“Let me say involuntary manslaughter is a very serious crime. And a very serious charge,” said Schuette.

Twelve people died during the 2014-2015 Legionnaires' disease outbreak in Genesee County.

According to the prosecutors, state Health Department Chief Nick Lyon received several notices about the Legionnaires' outbreak and failed to act.

One legal issue that a jury will have to decide involves what the source of the Legionella bacteria was.

Prosecutors point to the ill-fated switch to the Flint River as the city’s drinking water source as the cause.

Special Counsel Todd Flood said the outbreak started around the time the city switched to the Flint River.

“When they switched back to the Detroit water system, temporally, you can see the Legionella outbreak quickly dissipated," said Flood.

Prosecutors plan to present experts at trial to back up their contention that the river water was the source of the Legionella.

The bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease occurs naturally but it becomes a problem when it contaminates water systems. That’s how people can get exposed, by breathing in small water droplets that contain the bacteria.

Click here to learn more about the history of Legionnaires' in Flint.

State health department officials have focused their investigation on McLaren Hospital in Flint. About half of the people who got sick with Legionnaires’ disease spent time at the hospital during the time of the outbreak.

But Genesee County prosecutor David Leyton defended McLaren Hospital yesterday.

“We think the river water is what caused it, not McLaren Hospital,” Leyton said. “We think McLaren Hospital did everything it could to properly treat the water and the source of the bacteria is the river.”

A health department spokeswoman said by email that the department is not aware that there has been any definitive link established between the Legionella outbreak in Genesee County and the change in the Flint water supply.

Cases of Legionnaires' disease in Michigan from 2007 to 2016. The outbreak in Genessee County was in 2014-2015. There were 90 cases and 12 deaths.
Credit Kaye LaFond/Michigan Radio

A spokeswoman for McLaren says the hospital has cooperated with public health officials and regulatory authorities from the earliest days of the water crisis, and continues to do so.

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control found a genetic link between two Legionnaires' cases and Legionella bacteria found at Flint’s McLaren hospital. A third case had the same genetic link, but the person had not been a patient at McLaren.

Experts are still trying to piece all of this together.

A study from Virginia Tech in 2016 found Legionella bacteria levels in Flint tap water were up to 1,000 times higher than normal during the height of the crisis.

Additional charges

There were also other charges announced against another top state health official: Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive.

She’s charged with obstruction of justice - a felony - and lying to a police officer - a misdemeanor. The attorney general’s office alleges Wells "attempted to withhold funding for programs designed to help the victims of the crisis, and then lied to an investigator about material facts related to the investigation."

In a statement, Governor Snyder said Director Lyon and Dr. Wells have his “full faith and confidence” and will keep their jobs.