- Curt Guyette
investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. His work focuses on emergency management and open government. His recent article for the ACLU of Michigan is titled “Charges Against Emergency Managers Underscore Folly of Shortsightedness That Created Flint Water Crisis.”
- Nayyirah Shariff
director of Flint Rising, a coalition of activists and advocates working to fix the Flint Water Crisis.
Michigan’s attorney general has filed criminal charges against four officials over the Flint water contamination crisis. Among those charged Tuesday are two of the city’s former unelected emergency managers, Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose. They were charged with criminal conspiracy to violate safety rules. The Flint water crisis began when unelected emergency manager Darnell Earley, appointed by Governor Rick Snyder, switched the source of the city’s drinking water from the Detroit system to the corrosive Flint River. The water corroded Flint’s aging pipes, causing poisonous levels of lead to leach into the drinking water. We speak to Curt Guyette of the ACLU of Michigan and Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today in Michigan, where new criminal charges have been filed in the ongoing Flint water contamination crisis that exposed nearly 100,000 residents to high levels of lead. Four former Flint officials have been charged with criminal conspiracy to violate safety rules, including two former state-appointed, unelected emergency managers, Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose. On Tuesday, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced the charges.
ATTORNEY GENERAL BILL SCHUETTE: We are announcing charges against four individuals: two former state-appointed—two former state-appointed emergency managers and two former employees of the city of Flint. … These are governor-appointed emergency managers that we’re charging today with 20-year felonies, and it’s serious. And, as Andy Arena said, it’s—we’re going up, and we’re going broader. And what happens in the future—you know, this is what we do. We read the emails. We have interviews. And we know how to put two and two together. And if there’s sufficient probable cause that establishes a crime, then we charge it. We don’t do it prematurely. This is a thorough investigation, a fast-paced investigation. And again—I’ve said this before—nobody is on the table, nobody is off the table. There’s no—we’re not out to nail anybody. Now, mind you, if you’ve done something wrong, then you ought to be worried. If you’ve not done anything wrong, then you shouldn’t worry.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette speaking on Tuesday. Activists continue to call for state executives, including Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, to be charged. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver issued a statement after the charges were announced, saying, quote, “I’m glad more and more people are being held accountable for this man-made water disaster. … The leaders in charge at the time could have prevented this disaster, but they didn’t. They did not protect the health and well-being of the citizens of this city and that’s wrong. They didn’t even listen when residents spoke up saying there was a problem. That is how we got here and everyone who had a role in allowing this tragedy to happen must face the consequences of their actions,” Weaver said.
The Flint water crisis began when the city’s unelected emergency manager, appointed by Governor Snyder, switched the source of Flint’s drinking water from the Detroit system to the corrosive Flint River. The water corroded Flint’s aging pipes, causing poisonous levels of lead to leach into the drinking water. Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate approved a bill granting $170 million to Flint to help replace the pipes.
For more, we’re joined now by Nayyirah Shariff, who is director of Flint Rising, a coalition of activists and advocates working to fix the Flint water crisis. Also with us, Curt Guyette, investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan who helped bring the crisis to light. His work focuses on emergency management and open government. His recent article for the ACLU of Michigan is headlined “Charges Against Emergency Managers Underscore Folly of Shortsightedness That Created Flint Water Crisis.”
We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! I want to begin with Curt Guyette on this issue of the two emergency managers, who were unelected, appointed by the governor of Michigan, that then everyone who is elected becomes subordinate to, like the mayor and the City Council of Flint. So, explain the decisions of Darnell Earley and Ambrose around the decision to change the water supply from one they had used for decades to the corrosive Flint River.
CURT GUYETTE: Well, it was all an attempt to save money. They said that by using the Flint River for two years while a new pipeline was being built, bringing water from Lake Huron to Genesee County, they would save about $5 million. And so, their charge is to cut expenses, to bring the budget in balance, and at any cost. And in this case, the cost was the contamination of a city’s water supply.
One of the aspects of the charges that were brought by the attorney general was the fact that Darnell Earley allegedly allowed the water plant, the Flint water plant, to begin treating water before it was physically ready to begin doing that job. But they were in such a rush to save money and use the river, that they went ahead before it was safe. And that’s one of the—one of the charges that was brought against Earley, for allegedly allowing that to happen.
It’s also tied into this bigger issue of this Karegnondi pipeline and this loan that was obtained, allegedly, through false pretenses. That’s the major charges that were brought against all four of these individuals, was participating in this alleged scheme to obtain this loan under false premises, because Flint was maxed out and couldn’t borrow any more money. But there was pressure to get Flint to participate in building this new pipeline, which is very questionable as to whether it was needed at all. But there was such pressure to do it that they allegedly engaged in this scheme to obtain a loan under false pretenses that would allow Flint to help finance it.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is just an astounding story, considering how many people have been made sick—not to mention died. But I want to turn to a clip of the former emergency manager, Darnell Earley, who has now been charged. He is now the emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools. Michigan’s Democratic Party has called for his termination from that position, citing his handling of the Flint water crisis. Earley was questioned by reporters back in October about his role in the switch to the Flint River as a water source.
DARNELL EARLEY: It fell to me to implement the plan that had been approved by the council, and part of that plan included using the Flint River as a water source. And that was a part of the organizational change in the water supply from Detroit to—to Flint River—Karegnondi, using Flint River in the interim.
REPORTER: Did you think it might be dangerous?
HANDLER: Thank you. We’ve got to go.
DARNELL EARLEY: Well, I—it didn’t fall to me to second-guess that issue. I mean, there’s always concerns when you’re treating water. River water is difficult—more difficult to treat. But it wasn’t my role to act as the person responsible for determining what that involved.
AMY GOODMAN: So that is Darnell Earley. He actually is no longer the emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools. And, of course, he has been charged for his role as the emergency manager in Flint. Nayyirah Shariff, it’s great to have you back on Democracy Now!, with Flint Rising. Your response to what he said, and also what this means for your city?
NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Well, while we welcome all charges against anyone who was responsible for the largest public health disaster in the history of this country, we still don’t have justice for Flint. We still do not have safe water running out of our taps unfiltered. We’re still paying a water bill, one of the highest rates of the nation, for water we cannot use. And actually, next month they’re going to start shutting off water for people who can’t—who are unable to pay their water bills. We still do not have the wraparound services that we need for our community moving forward.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Curt Guyette, this comment of the emergency manager, of [Darnell] Earley, can you comment on that? And then talk about the role, from Earley, when he was the emergency manager, to Ambrose, who has also been charged, the City Council of Flint demanding and voting that the city disconnect from Flint, the corrosive water, back to the Detroit water supply. And what was his term, Ambrose’s term, for that decision the next day?
CURT GUYETTE: Yeah, well, first of all, what Darnell Earley claimed in that clip was just absolutely not true. The City Council never voted on using the Flint River. That was a decision made—implemented by the emergency managers. So, the council was out of that. So that was just not true. This was the emergency managers that did that. Darnell Earley was in office when Detroit made a final offer to keep selling Flint water while the pipeline was being built, and he rejected it. One thing that happened for quite a while were that officials for the state kept trying to claim that they didn’t have any choice to—but to use the Flint River, because Detroit kicked them off. And that is also just absolutely untrue. It was a decision that they made strictly to—in attempt, a shortsighted attempt, to cut costs. And the reason that they were lying about that is because they were trying to avoid the responsibility for their actions, the responsibilities that are now coming home to roost for them.
For Jerry Ambrose, you’re absolutely correct in that the—in March of ’15, the City Council, because of the public outcry about what was going on with the water, voted to return to the Detroit system, and Jerry Ambrose said, no, it was inconceivable that they would do that, that basically the bottom line was that they could not afford to return to the Detroit system and provide the city with clean, safe water. He also said at the time that the water was safe, even though, by then, there was a lot of evidence indicating already then of the problems going on with the lead in the water.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Jerry Ambrose, Flint’s former unelected emergency manager, also charged Tuesday. This is Ambrose addressing residents at a meeting in Flint in March of 2015.
GERALD AMBROSE: It ran into some bumps. But what did we do when that happened?
FLINT RESIDENT 1: You didn’t tell us ’til January.
FLINT RESIDENT 2: Didn’t tell us.
FLINT RESIDENT 3: You waited seven months.
FLINT RESIDENT 4: January!
FLINT RESIDENT 3: You all poisoned us for seven months.
GERALD AMBROSE: We said, “What are we going to do about that?” We started immediately to address the problem.
FLINT RESIDENT 1: You didn’t tell us.
FLINT RESIDENT 4: Without telling the public.
AMY GOODMAN: You were there, Curt, at that meeting? Were you there?
CURT GUYETTE: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what he’s saying. Again, the day after Flint—although they’re now all working for him, the City Council, right? Once he was put in as emergency manager. He no longer is.
CURT GUYETTE: Essentially, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: He said—when they made this decision to go back to the Detroit water supply, he called that decision “incomprehensible.”
CURT GUYETTE: Yeah. And I think one of the telling things about that clip is just sort of the disdain that he shows for the people that he’s supposed to be serving. The attorney general talked about the arrogance and the failure of management. And I think that that clip kind of encapsulates that. So, but, yeah, Ambrose absolutely was in a position to follow what the City Council voted to do, and allow the city to return to the Detroit system, and refused to do so. Ambrose is also charged with allegedly impeding an investigation into the Legionnaires’ outbreak that is linked to the switch to the river water and has resulted in the deaths of at least 12 people so far. That’s a misconduct in office charge, that is a five-year felony, that he is also facing as a result of the attorney general’s actions.
AMY GOODMAN: Curt, you also confronted Flint Public Works Director Harold Croft, and I want to go to that clip. This was a part of your—this was a part of your documentary. One of the reasons that state and local officials regularly cited for the switch to the Flint River was that the Detroit Water and Sewer, which had been supplying Flint’s water, forced Flint off its supply, as you pointed out. However, you obtained for the ACLU of Michigan a letter dated March 7, 2014, from emergency manager Darnell Earley to an official at Detroit Water, a letter that said, Earley writing, quote, “Thank you for the correspondence … which provides Flint with the option of continuing to purchase water from DWSD. … The City of Flint has actively pursued using the Flint River as a temporary water source. … There will be no need for Flint to continue purchasing water to serve its residents and businesses after April 17, 2014.” So, in this clip from your documentary, Hard to Swallow, Curt Guyette, you talk to Howard Croft, Flint’s director of public utilities, and present him with a copy of Earley’s letter after Croft tried to explain—this is one of the men who was indicted now, Croft and Earley—after Croft tried to explain why the city switched to the Flint River for its water.
HOWARD CROFT: Talking about Detroit, that had over a billion dollars of infrastructure costs coming that we could see, and we were kicked off their system, faced with threats of [inaudible]—
CURT GUYETTE: Let me just address that. I have a letter from Darnell Earley saying the city of Flint has decided not to return to—not to continue using Detroit water.
HOWARD CROFT: There were—
CURT GUYETTE: Correct? Is that correct?
HOWARD CROFT: I think evaluations have gone on all the way up to the state level on what the best course of action would be for the city of Flint, and that was the determination.
CURT GUYETTE: All the way to the Governor’s Office?
HOWARD CROFT: All the way to the Governor’s Office.
AMY GOODMAN: So, there you are, confronting the man who was indicted yesterday, Howard Croft, that from your documentary with Kate Levy called Hard to Swallow. The significance of what he said, Curt Guyette?
CURT GUYETTE: Well, you know, according to Croft, the decision to use the river ultimately came out of the Governor’s Office. And that’s been the only indication so far that that was the case. But, you know, as the attorney general said at his news conference yesterday, the investigation is continuing, and it’s broadening, and it’s going higher. So, we’ll just have to wait and see where the investigation leads. But I do know that when I asked the governor’s former spokeswoman about the decision to use the river, she also lied and said that Flint—
AMY GOODMAN: And her name is?
CURT GUYETTE: Her name is Sara Wurfel. And she, at the time, was the governor’s spokesperson. And she also said that Flint was kicked off of the Detroit system. She did not give an honest answer when presented with the question of what the governor’s role in making the decision to use the river was.
AMY GOODMAN: And isn’t it also true that when Ambrose left as emergency manager, he said one rule must remain in place, that Flint remain attached to the Flint River, the corrosive river, for a year after he left?
CURT GUYETTE: Well, actually, what he did was issued an order saying that no previous orders issued by the emergency manager could be changed until one year after receivership ends. And receivership doesn’t end when the emergency manager leaves. Emergency—the receivership ends when the advisory board, that is appointed by the governor, disbands. So, technically, Flint and a lot of other cities taken over by the state remain in receivership. And full democracy has not yet returned to Flint, because of these—they’re called a transition advisory board—remains in place, with veto power over budgets and major contracts. So, there is still a lot of state control being exercised.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Nayyirah Shariff, you live in Flint. Talk about what’s happening now. The attorney general, who announced the indictments of the four city officials, two of them emergency managers, has fought against a judge’s order to continue distribution of bottled water. Is that right? What’s happening with the water now?
NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Well, we’re still—we still have water that we cannot use. And, unfortunately, our Attorney General Office is doing a selective administration of justice. They are still fighting the federal order to deliver water door to door to Flint residents. And they’re still defending the emergency manager law in court. So, we’re still—we still have this law, and it needs to be immediately repealed.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how are people getting their water?
NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Well, still through a variety of ways. There are still—there are still these areas that the states manage, that they’ve cut the hours. They’re only open from 12:00 to 6:00, Monday through Saturday. So people will go there to get water. They may rely on their neighbors to deliver water. Like many seniors are still having trouble picking up water, because they could not carry the water inside of their homes. And, unfortunately, at this point, like many of the donations have dried out, because people erroneously assume that things are changing in Flint, like Flint is being fixed. And nothing has really happened. It’s actually getting worse.
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, the Senate signed off on a $170 million federal aid package for Flint. The number, the figure, $170 million, also is supposed to include money for a national health registry for children exposed to lead. So what’s happening with that money? And what about this registry? Do you have concerns?
NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Right now, nothing has really happened. And with this federal money, it’s still going to be administered by the state. And so, the state, which is responsible for poisoning Flint residents—so, they could use this as an opportunity to force like coercive measures upon the city as a—as a quid pro quo to access this money.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Nayyirah Shariff, you just went from Flint to Standing Rock in North Dakota. We just have a minute, but why? What do you see is the connection between what’s happening in North Dakota and Flint?
NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Well, we’re in this nascent stage of these water wars. And hopefully, what’s happening at Standing Rock—we have the same corporations and the same ideology that is pushing for DAPL. It’s the same ideology that created the emergency manager law, this thing for austerity and privatization and resource extraction for short-term gain, without the impact—without humanity being in that equation. And I felt like I needed to have my body on the ground there as a show of support.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Nayyirah Shariff of the group Flint Rising and Curt Guyette of the ACLU of Michigan. We will link at Democracy Now! to Hard to Swallow, the documentary that you did with Kate Levy for the ACLU of Michigan, and our documentary, Thirsty for Democracy: The Poisoning of an American City, at democracynow.org. When we come back, the call for clemency for Leonard Peltier before President Obama leaves office. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Words of Wisdom” by Tupac Shakur. He was murdered at the age of 25 in an unsolved 1996 shooting in Las Vegas. He is to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.