By Monica Davey and Abby Goodnough
As Bill Schuette, the attorney general of Michigan, announced criminal charges against three government workers in Flint’s water crisis, he pledged there would be more charges soon, saying, “We’ll go wherever the truth takes us — and, in this case, wherever the emails take us.”
Thousands of email messages, which were made public in the months since state authorities acknowledged lead contamination in the city’s water last fall, are at the center of the state’s case, and more messages may yet come to light as prosecutors appear likely to weigh possible charges against higher-level officials.
But even with an array of written evidence, legal experts and environmental lawyers say the 13 criminal charges announced last week in Flint are extremely rare, and some said prosecutors may face significant challenges proving them in court.
The charges — which include accusations of conspiring to manipulate water monitoring reports, tampering with reports on lead in the water, and misleading local and federal authorities about the safety of the water — are highly unusual because they were filed not only against a city employee who worked at Flint’s water plant but also against state water regulators who were assigned to keep track of what Flint was doing.
“In 40 years of working in this field, I cannot think of another time when a regulator was charged in this way — they are prosecuting the people who are supposed to be the watchdogs,” said Jane F. Barrett, a professor and director of the environmental law clinic at the University of Maryland, who has previously worked as a state and federal prosecutor on environmental cases.“It’s one thing to say they were sloppy or negligent. But in terms of proving the conspiracy count, they have to have evidence that the defendants deliberately agreed to cover-up the seriousness of the problems with the drinking water supply,” she said.
Some legal experts suggested that the charges may have an effect beyond Flint or Michigan, raising a specter of criminal charges for regulators. “People are going to sit up straighter in their chairs,” said Mark N. Templeton, an associate clinical professor of law and director of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School. “They may need additional resources and training as well,” he added.
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