Michigan’s medical chief to stand trial on Flint charges
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan’s chief medical executive will stand trial on involuntary manslaughter and other charges in a criminal investigation over the Flint water crisis, a judge ruled Friday, making Dr. Eden Wells the second member of Gov. Rick Snyder’s Cabinet to go before a jury.
Wells is among six current or former government officials facing involuntary manslaughter charges in connection to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Flint area in 2014 and 2015. Wells is now the second high-ranking state official, along with Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, to be ordered to trial .
Wells, who like Lyon is accused of failing to alert the public of the spike in Legionnaires’ cases in a timely manner and causing the death of 85-year-old John Snyder, learned of the trial decision from Judge William Crawford II inside a Flint courtroom. The 55-year-old from Ann Arbor also faces charges of obstructing justice, lying to an investigator and committing misconduct in office.
She denied any wrongdoing.
“Dr. Wells is not guilty of these manufactured crimes and we will continue to fight as long as it takes to achieve a just result,” said Steven Tramontin, one of her attorneys.
Her legal team said Wells, who took the job in May 2015, was not informed of the 2014-15 epidemic until September or October of 2015, months before the governor and Lyon informed the public. They also said that even if she had known, there was no “legal duty” to alert residents, and there is no evidence that John Snyder died of Legionnaires’ disease.
Wells also denied allegations that she told a county health department to not notify the public, that she interfered with the work of university researchers and that she lied about when she learned of the outbreak.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette charged Wells last year.
“It was the correct outcome under the circumstances, based upon the evidence that was presented,” Paul Stablein, a special assistant attorney general, said of the judge’s ruling.
An additional 14 current or former state and local officials have been charged with crimes, either related to Legionnaires’ or lead in the water. Four agreed to plea deals; the other cases are moving slowly.
Some experts have blamed the outbreak on the use of the Flint River for municipal water. Legionella bacteria can emerge through misting and cooling systems, triggering a severe form of pneumonia, especially in people with weakened immune systems.
At least 90 cases of Legionnaires’ occurred in Genesee County, including 12 deaths. More than half of the people had a common thread: They spent time at McLaren Hospital, which was on the Flint water system.
The Republican governor, who has kept Wells on the job during the prosecution, said she should be presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty. He said she has his “full faith and confidence,” saying she has been “tremendously effective” both helping Flint recover and aiding the response to emerging chemical contaminants around the state despite her lengthy preliminary exam.
A top state lawmaker, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich of Flint, countered that Wells’ “inaction caused irreparable harm to the people of Flint.”
The future of the Flint cases is uncertain. The term-limited Schuette is leaving office, and incoming Democrat Dana Nessel has said she plans to dismiss Todd Flood — the special prosecutor appointed by Schuette — and bring in a new team to evaluate the cases.
“She is deeply concerned about the people of Flint. However, until she takes office, she will not comment specifically on any pending issue or cases,” said Nessel’s transition spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney.