Flint Water Crisis: How likely are criminal charges?

A federal investigation of the Flint water crisis is underway and many, from Flint residents to Hollywood celebrities, are calling for the arrest of Gov. Rick Snyder and others in his administration.

This tragedy is the result of, at the very least, a monumental blunder. We will not know the full effects of Flint’s contaminated water supply for decades. Million, possibly billions, of our tax dollars will be spent to correct this problem. Water system infrastructure will have to be rebuild or replaced, the victims will require health care, and just how much the civil lawsuits will cost is anyone’s guess.

Worse, for children impacted by high lead levels, there is no cure.

But how likely are criminal charges?

Keith Corbett, a former federal prosecutor, says criminal charges in these types of cases are often difficult to prove. Corbett spent more than two decades as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and was responsible for several high-profile prosecutions.

When you're dealing with incompetence and malfeasance in office that's just the result of people not doing their job, it becomes difficult to turn that into crime,” he said.

Corbett thinks it is doubtful anyone intended to poison Flint’s drinking water and unlikely anyone involved took a bribe or kickback.

“I think you're just talking about a situation where the people where he put in positions of authority made bad decisions and those bad decisions have had horrible consequences for the city of Flint,” he said.

However, that doesn’t mean Snyder and others like former MDEQ director Dan Wyatt and former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley shouldn’t expect a thorough criminal probe.

Andy Arena, the former head of Detroit’s FBI office, says even if it takes a grand jury to force the issue... the Feds will find out who knew what and when they knew it.

“They start at the beginning and go all the way back to today,” Arena said. “Test results, email phone logs, and testimony of those involved; why did you make the decision? Who did you talk to? Who assisted you in coming to that decision?”

Corbett and Arena both agree an investigation could uncover EPA violations, but they say if criminal charges are coming, it's much more likely to come from a cover up rather than the decision to change Flint’s water system in the first place.

“If they engaged in some sort of activity like generating forged documents or tried conceal [the water’s toxicity] then you get into an area where you may be able to articulate some violations like the mail fraud statute the wire fraud statute,” said Corbett.

And, Arena says, if Snyder and company aren’t completely honest during the investigation, that could trigger charges as well.

People are already questioning timelines given by Snyder and other officials. Emails and memos have surfaced raising doubts that everything was done as soon as possible to limit Flint residents’ exposure to lead.  Lying to the public and media is not a crime, but lying to federal investigators is a serious crime.

“When you start to mislead a grand jury, doctoring documents, destroying documentation, that’s where it becomes a crime,” he said.

At the very least, the threat of perjury or obstruction of justice charges may be enough to ensure a federal investigation leads to a full accounting of exactly what happened in Flint.

“The state is probably going to comply rather than putting themselves in a situation where they're looking like they're obstructing an investigation because that's going to make it more likely that [the feds] are going to say: ‘hey, wait a minute? Why won’t you show us what you got,’” said Corbett.

Law enforcement experts say this isn’t likely a complicated case to investigation. It shouldn’t take long for federal investigators to see if the Snyder Administration is truly cooperating or if they are attempting to avoid disclosing key evidence. The longer the investigation is prolonged, the more likely the chances someone will face charges.