LANSING, Mich. – An apologetic Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was largely silent last year when criminal charges were brought against state officials over Flint's man-made drinking water crisis, except to say some "bureaucrats" had failed residents and that he was focused on the city's recovery.
Now, with two of his own cabinet members facing unprecedented manslaughter or other charges related to a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak that some experts have linked to the municipal water, a more defiant Snyder is keeping them on the job and publicly and privately defending their names despite calls for their removal. He referred to Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon as a "strong leader." He said Lyon and Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells have his "full faith and confidence" and have been instrumental in Flint's rehabilitation.
They are the highest-ranking officials to be charged in Attorney General Bill Schuette's investigation of the city's lead contamination. And unlike the other 10 state officials who were previously charged — five environmental regulators, three health experts and two former emergency managers whom Snyder appointed to address the city's budget deficits — they are closer to his immediate orbit and report directly to him.
While the new charges have fanned speculation that Snyder could be next, Schuette said there is insufficient evidence. He added that the probe will continue, even as the emphasis shifts to prosecuting those accused.
"There's no checklist on any crime or any person. We just go where the evidence takes us," said Schuette, whose special prosecutor, Todd Flood, has not issued a subpoena to interview Snyder.
Lyon and Eden are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the governor.
Lyon is charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office. Prosecutors allege that he waited nearly a year to alert the public and the governor about the Legionnaires' outbreak in Genesee County, causing the death of an 85-year-old man who allegedly contracted legionella bacteria at a Flint hospital that is on the city's municipal water. They also say he intentionally misled and withheld information from Snyder about the rash of 90 cases, including 12 deaths, in 2014 and 2015.
Wells is charged with obstructing justice and lying to investigators.
"The charges against them are based on unproven allegations and he believes people are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law," Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said.
The Republican governor has apologized for the state's role in the disaster and has said the "buck stops here with me."
Three years ago, Flint's fateful switch from the Detroit water system to a river to save money while under state management resulted in the water being improperly treated, enabling toxic lead that leached from aging service lines and household fixtures to poison children. Some experts have linked the poorly treated water to Legionnaires' disease, a type of pneumonia. People can get sick if they inhale mist or vapor, typically from cooling systems.
In December 2015, Snyder accepted the resignation of another cabinet member over the Flint disaster, Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant, who has not been charged. Six of the state employees facing charges are suspended with pay. Snyder announced the firing of Michigan's drinking water chief in February 2016. The state's top epidemiologist retired and later pleaded no contest as part of a deal with prosecutors.
Democratic legislative leaders said they were disappointed with Snyder's defense of Lyon and Wells.
"His comments erode trust in government," said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, of Flint.
House Minority Leader Sam Singh said the probe is serious enough that all of those under investigation should at least be given a leave of absence.
But others applauded Snyder's stance, saying he must fight back against a Republican attorney general who some suspect is using the high-profile investigation for political gain in 2018, when he is expected to run for governor as Snyder faces term limits.
"I think the governor made a very brave stand," said John Truscott, a friend of Lyon's and a former long-time aide to Republican Gov. John Engler.
Wells and Lyon received an emotional standing ovation from Snyder and senior staff during an impromptu lunch scheduled after the charges were announced, according to one of Snyder's advisers.
Truscott called the charges "bogus and completely trumped-up" and said Lyon is a prominent target whose prosecution assures continued "headlines" for Schuette. He faulted Schuette for saying Lyon and Wells should resign, calling the suggestion and other public comments he and other authorities have made during the investigation "very prejudicial."
"It's either an extremely poorly executed investigation or it's a political," Truscott said.
Wells' attorney, Jerry Lax, said "it's entirely appropriate" for Wells to continue on the job.
"She's a competent professional and is dedicated to carrying out those professional responsibilities," he said.
Schuette denied that his actions were politically motivated, saying he knows that some people are angry he has not charged the governor and that others think he has been too harsh on Snyder's administration.
"Children have been exposed to lead and numerous people died of Legionnaires' disease. Are we just supposed to forget about that? That's outrageous," Schuette told The Associated Press. "That is just smug arrogance. Blaming it on nameless, faceless bureaucrats (and saying), 'It's inconveniencing me and let's go on.' That cannot happen. Justice needs to be that those who violated the law are held accountable."