The bill for expert witnesses for the defense of current and former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees in the Flint water crisis cases now exceeds $108,000.
Flint Water Crisis
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan attempted to reduce costs by getting its water from the Flint River instead of from Detroit. Soon after the switch, residents began to complain about the water’s smell and taste.
Tests by the Environmental Protection Agency and Virginia Tech showed that the water contained dangerous levels of lead, which can have detrimental effects on the heart, kidneys, and nerves. Exposure to lead in children can impair cognition and cause behavioral disorders, hearing problems, and delayed puberty.
Numerous lawsuits were filed against Michigan, the City of Flint, and the state and city officials who were responsible for switching the source of Flint’s drinking water and for monitoring the water quality.
Criminal cases were brought against some of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees who are alleged to be responsible, including Liane Shekter-Smith, former director of the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance; Stephen Busch, a district supervisor; Michael Prysby, a district engineer; and Patrick Cook, a community drinking water specialist.
Expert Witness Fees
Records obtained from the DEQ show that the state has been billed $58,713 by Ramboll Environ, $46,996 by Northeast Water Solutions, and $3,019 by Berkeley Research Group for expert witnesses to defend the DEQ employees. Additionally, the state has been billed $87,000 for experts retained by two top executives for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services who have been charged in connection with the water crisis.
Some state officials have expressed concern with the amount of these bills. State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, has said that Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration is letting “taxpayers foot the bill to help protect the very people who poisoned them. . . . As far as the department is concerned, they can just keep putting all of these sky-high costs on the taxpayer’s tab and call it a day. There’s just no restraint.”
Governor Rick Snyder’s press secretary, Anna Heaton, has said that the costs for defending state employees are unprecedented “because this preliminary exam has been dragged out for an unprecedented length of time. . . . Government employees sued or charged in the course of their duties, whether they work in the executive, legislative or judicial branches, are entitled to the same presumption of innocence and protection for a fair trial as everyone else.”
Tiffany Brown, a spokesperson for the DEQ, has said that the bills for expert witnesses have been paid directly by the Michigan Department of Treasury, which is partially reimbursed for the cost by the DEQ. Brown said, “All state of Michigan expenditures are reviewed for appropriateness prior to payment. . . . The department evaluates costs for expert witnesses on a case by case basis. As needs arise, the department identifies budget within available and applicable appropriations.”