September 4, 2018
A recent Crain’s Detroit Business story by Chad Livengood, “Flint Water Legal Bills Could Top $34.5 Million,” reports that three years after lead was discovered in Flint's water, there's no end in sight for the legal bills the state is paying private law firms to represent state officials in civil litigation and criminal prosecutions. Private attorneys representing state health director Nick Lyon have billed taxpayers more than $1.6 million to defend a high-ranking member of Gov. Rick Snyder's cabinet facing involuntary manslaughter charges stemming from Flint's water crisis — and his trial date hasn't even been set yet.
That number is only a small part of amount the state has spent on Flint water crisis-related legal bills. Through mid-August, the state had spent $26.5 million, while three state departments have current capacity in contracts to make that total top $34.5 million, according to public records compiled by Crain's. Three days after a Genesee County judge ordered Lyon to stand trial last month for the suspected water-related deaths of two elderly Flint-area men, the state's Administrative Board increased the contract for Lyon's primary defense attorneys at the Grand Rapids firm Willey & Chamberlain by $1 million to $2.75 million.
The state Department of Health and Human Services, which Lyon remains in charge of while facing prosecution, has additional contracts of $400,000 each with two other law firms working to keep him out of prison — Bursch Law PLLC in Caledonia and Chartier & Nyamfukudza PLC in Lansing.
The $3.55 million budgeted for Lyon's criminal defense in a high-stakes and politically tinged criminal case brought by Attorney General Bill Schuette is seen by longtime Lansing observers as an unprecedented expense of taxpayer money. Lyon's legal bills alone over three fiscal years exceed what Genesee County spends annually for defense attorneys who represent indigent residents.
"It's unheard of. It's beyond exorbitant," said William Whitbeck, a retired Court of Appeals judge who was paid nearly $300,000 by Schuette to evaluate charges leveled by a special prosecutor. "If you or I were to commit a crime or even be charged with committing a crime, we'd pay our own way. There's no reason in God's green earth why a similarly situated citizen who happens to be a state employee should be treated differently."
Schuette, the Republican nominee for governor, has run up some big bills himself in pursuit of criminal convictions of state officials he says are culpable for Flint's tainted water. To date, Schuette's investigation, run by the Royal Oak law firm of attorney Todd Flood, has spent $6.9 million. The Legislature has approved an additional $3.1 million for the prosecutions over the next 13 months.
Three years have passed since elevated levels of toxic lead were discovered in the city's drinking water, and, despite deep distrust from residents, public health officials have since declared the Vehicle City's tap water safe to drink again. But there's no end in sight for the legal recriminations from the crisis that are keeping some private attorneys in Michigan busy.
Not a single trial from Schuette's litany of charges against 15 current and former local and state officials has begun, with Lyon just getting bound over for trial two weeks ago in Genesee County Circuit Court after a laborious 11-month preliminary examination in district court.
Gov. Rick Snyder's administration has spent at least $13.75 million to date on private attorneys hired to produce some 2 million pages of records for Schuette and Flood's investigation and represent the governor and at least 30 state employees in the criminal probe and subsequent court proceedings, state records show.
Richard McLellan, a Lansing attorney and ally of Lyon, said the outgoing Republican governor is "doing the right thing" using taxpayer money to defend "his people" in court. "Yeah, it costs money. But what is the cost of maybe going to prison for 15 years for something you didn't do?" McLellan said, referencing the prison sentence Lyon faces for involuntary manslaughter. "... What's Snyder supposed to do? Say, 'Oh, it's too much. You're just going to have to be on your own.'"