DETROIT – The only Michigan official fired in the Flint water disaster wants to be reinstated and get years of back pay after a criminal case against her fizzled into a misdemeanor that was ultimately erased.
Liane Shekter Smith and the state's environment department are meeting privately this week with an arbitrator, more than five years after then-Gov. Rick Snyder dismissed her in 2016, attorneys said.
Shekter Smith was head of Michigan's drinking water office when Flint, with the state's OK, used the Flint River for water in 2014-15, a catastrophic step that contaminated the system with lead. The highly corrosive water wasn't properly treated before it flowed through aging pipes to roughly 100,000 residents.
In 2016, a task force appointed by Snyder said the Department of Environmental Quality, as the agency was known at the time, misapplied lead-and-copper rules in Flint and “caused this crisis to happen.”
Shekter Smith was subsequently charged with misconduct in office and neglect of duty, and put on notice that an involuntary manslaughter charge would be pursued because bacteria in the water were linked to a fatal outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.
But charges were dropped in 2019 in exchange for a no-contest plea to an obscure misdemeanor that didn't result in any jail time. The case was erased after a year, under a deal with special prosecutor Todd Flood, who said Shekter Smith's cooperation with investigators was important.
Her attorney, Brian Morley, said at the time that criminal charges weren't appropriate even if mistakes were made in Flint. Shekter Smith's legal fees, paid by taxpayers, totaled $566,000, according to the state.
Shekter Smith and her lawyers, as well as the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, declined to comment about the arbitration process related to her firing.
She filed a grievance shortly after she was dismissed from her $135,000-a-year job. But no action was taken while the criminal case and various lawsuits by Flint residents were pending.
In her grievance, Shekter Smith claimed her right to due process was violated when she was fired “without a full and fair investigation.” She didn't elaborate in the brief form obtained by The Associated Press.
The state said she had failed to correctly apply the lead rule in Flint and didn't work effectively with federal regulators.
The firing was “appropriate for the conduct, was for just cause and was not arbitrary or capricious,” the state told her in response.
Other state employees who worked with Shekter Smith were placed on leave when they were charged with crimes in Flint. But their cases, too, were erased after misdemeanor plea deals, and they returned to jobs.
A second investigation of how Flint's water was contaminated led to a new round of charges in January against nine people, including Snyder, who is accused of willful neglect of duty. Two Snyder administration health officials face involuntary manslaughter charges. All have pleaded not guilty.
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