Aus­ter­ity on Trial as Michi­gan Gov­ern­ment Of­fi­cials Face Crim­i­nal Charges

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Putting aus­ter­ity on trial, Michi­gan At­tor­ney Gen­eral Bill Schuette on an­nounced crim­i­nal charges against four high-level of­fi­cials for their role in caus­ing the Flint wa­ter cri­sis, in­clud­ing for­mer city man­ager Dar­nell Ear­ley, who made the bud­get-driven de­ci­sion to switch the city's wa­ter sup­ply to the dan­ger­ously cor­ro­sive Flint River.

"There are some who would sim­ply wish that the prob­lems in Flint would go qui­etly away, and there are voices out there who hope the poi­son­ing of the wa­ter would be swept un­der the rug," Schuette said dur­ing a press con­fer­ence. "Th­ese voices hope to sim­ply blame name­less bu­reau­crats, call it a day and move on."

"That's not how I op­er­ate," he con­tin­ued, "that's not how we op­er­ate. Flint de­serves bet­ter. The peo­ple of Flint are not ex­pend­able...peo­ple in po­si­tions of re­spon­si­bil­ity who broke that law must be held ac­count­able."

Ear­ley, as well as an­other for­mer emer­gency man­ager Gerald Am­brose—both ap­pointees of Repub­li­can Gov­er­nor Rick Sny­der—are be­ing charged with false pre­tense and con­spir­acy to com­mit false pre­tense, which each carry a 20-year sen­tence, as well as mis­con­duct in of­fice and will­ful ne­glect of duty.

Ear­ley, who ran the city from 2013 to 2015, "knew the plant was not pre­pared to pro­duce wa­ter and, nev­er­the­less, al­lowed it to be pro­vided to the pub­lic," Jeff Seipenko, a spe­cial agent with the at­tor­ney gen­eral's of­fice in 67th District Court, told the Detroit News. And de­spite con­cerns over health is­sues, Ear­ley de­clined to switch back to the pre­vi­ous source, the Detroit Wa­ter and Sew­er­age De­part­ment.

Sim­i­larly, while serv­ing as emer­gency man­ager in 2015, Am­brose over­ruled a city coun­cil vote to re­turn to the cleaner, safer Detroit sys­tem, es­sen­tially "say­ing the peo­ple of Flint couldn't af­ford any­thing bet­ter than the rust-col­ored, foul-smelling swill be­ing pumped from the river into their homes," as Curt Guyette, in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter with the ACLU of Michi­gan re­cently put it. With the state ap­point­ment of an emer­gency man­ager, Guyette ob­served, "democ­racy had been hi­jacked, with an aus­ter­ity-driven au­toc­racy in­stalled in its place."

City of­fi­cials Howard Croft, who was pub­lic works su­per­in­ten­dent at the time, and his sub­or­di­nate, util­i­ties ad­min­is­tra­tor Daugh­erty John­son, also face charges of mis­con­duct in of­fice and will­ful ne­glect be­cause they "put pres­sure on in­di­vid­u­als at the wa­ter treat­ment plant to get the plant to work, de­spite hav­ing been told it wasn't ready," Seipenko said.

"All too of­ten, there's been a fix­a­tion on fi­nances and bal­ance sheets," Schuette said dur­ing the press con­fer­ence. "This fix­a­tion cost lives. This fix­a­tion came at the ex­pense of pro­tect­ing the health and safety of Flint. It's all about num­bers over peo­ple, money over health."

Schuette's an­nounce­ment brings the to­tal num­ber of peo­ple fac­ing crim­i­nal charges to nine; two com­pa­nies have also been charged with civil com­plaints.

The lat­est round of charges re­flects the find­ings of the Flint Wa­ter Ad­vi­sory Task Force, whose March 2016 re­port on the cri­sis de­clared unequiv­o­cally that its causes "lie pri­mar­ily at the feet of the state by virtue of its agen­cies' fail­ures and its ap­pointed emer­gency man­agers' mis­judge­ments."

But as the pro-democ­racy group Progress Michi­gan pointed out, the crim­i­nal charges against Ear­ley and Am­brose do not rec­tify the state's "dis­as­trous emer­gency man­ager law."

"Frankly, the en­tire law needs to be re­lo­cated to the scrap heap of his­tory or, in the very least, sig­nif­i­cantly al­tered un­til that day comes," said the group's ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Lon­nie Scott. "The emer­gency man­ager law is fun­da­men­tally flawed be­cause it takes away the peo­ple's right to vote and has re­mained un­changed since the Flint Wa­ter Cri­sis be­gan," he con­tin­ued. "Bill Schuette bring­ing charges against th­ese emer­gency man­agers is ironic be­cause he ac­tu­ally fought to pre­serve this un­demo­cratic sys­tem of gov­ern­ing. Given that the only per­son emer­gency man­agers are an­swer to is the gov­er­nor, we hope the in­ves­ti­ga­tion will con­tinue to reach higher un­til ev­ery­one in­volved is brought to jus­tice."

Nayyi­rah Shariff, di­rec­tor of the com­mu­nity coali­tion Flint Ris­ing, echoed that dis­ap­point­ment.

"Here we are more than two years since the wa­ter cri­sis be­gan and we still have the same dra­co­nian law in place, Flint res­i­dents are still with­out clean, safe wa­ter, and Bill Schuette him­self is fight­ing a fed­eral court or­der to de­liver life-sav­ing wa­ter to res­i­dents who oth­er­wise would be with­out," Shariff said. "Flint res­i­dents say that so far they have not seen the re­sults and jus­tice they de­serve. This un­prece­dented man-made cri­sis de­serves swift, com­plete ac­tion to help rem­edy the harm of an en­tire city be­ing poi­soned."

"Bill Schuette and elected lead­ers in the State Capi­tol should not rest un­til ev­ery Flint res­i­dent has ac­cess to clean, safe wa­ter, wrap­around health and ed­u­ca­tion ser­vices, full re­im­burse­ment of their wa­ter bills, and the Emer­gency Man­ager Law is re­pealed in its en­tirety," Shariff con­tin­ued. "We are tired of the se­lec­tive showboating be­ing masked as jus­tice. We de­mand com­plete jus­tice now and we will not rest un­til we get it."

When asked by a re­porter if the in­ves­ti­ga­tion will lead to the of­fice of the Repub­li­can gov­er­nor, Schuette said, "No­body's on the ta­ble, no­body's off the ta­ble."

"The tragedy that we know of as the Flint wa­ter cri­sis did not oc­cur by ac­ci­dent. Flint was the ca­su­alty of ar­ro­gance, dis­dain and a fail­ure of man­age­ment, an ab­sence of ac­count­abil­ity and shirk­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity," Schuette added, vow­ing, "We will pro­ceed to de­liver jus­tice and hold those ac­count­able who broke the law."

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