Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Fusion/GMG, photos via AP

Whatever you do, stop calling the Flint water crisis a “failure at all levels of government.”

That’s the going line used by Congressional investigators, the Michigan governor, the Michigan Senate Majority Leader, and impassioned commentators around the country. And sure, this is one cliche that’s accurate. But the passive voice blurs the fact that real people made real choices that created a human-made disaster, endangering a city of nearly 100,000 people with lead poisoning, Legionnaires’ disease, and the accelerated corrosion of its drinking water system.

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While lead and water lines captured the headlines, it’s Legionnaires’—a severe form of pneumonia caused by a waterborne bacteria that can be inhaled, for example, during showers—that proved fatal. In a 17-month period over 2014 and 2015, 90 people got sick and 12 died. The outbreak is believed to be connected to that infamous 2014 Flint water switch.

A special prosecutor appointed by the Michigan Attorney General has led an investigation that has criminally charged 15 people so far, with the most recent indictments delivered last week against two of the state’s highest-ranking health officials. Two civil lawsuits were also filed against corporations for professional negligence. Separate from the AG investigation, there was also a settlement in lawsuit where the state will pay $87 million to the city and replace at least 18,000 damaged water lines by 2020, among other requirements.

As each wave of indictments comes down, with one formerly anonymous bureaucrat after another put in the spotlight’s glare, I’ve noticed how many observers seem to assume that if they have never heard of the officials who are charged, then they’re probably scapegoats. Unless the investigation reaches the governor’s office, the whole thing must be a sham.

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Not so, I say. After more than 18 months of reporting about what went wrong in Flint, I understand the skepticism. But these people, and these companies, appear to bear a lot of responsibility. The fact that few people nationwide recognize their names should not be mistaken for a lack of power and influence. While Governor Rick Snyder has absorbed the bulk of the public’s blame, “Michigan’s most comprehensive criminal investigation in modern history” is, appropriately, being built from the ground up.


STATE OF MICHIGAN

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

Nick Lyon

Director, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

Charges: Involuntary manslaughter (15-year felony), misconduct in office (5-year felony)

As part of the governor’s cabinet, Lyon is the highest-ranking official to be charged so far. He’s accused of failing to notify the public about an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that’s believed to be tied to the 2014 water switch. By “taking steps to suppress information illustrating obvious and apparent harms,” according to charging documents, Lyon allegedly allowed a public health crisis to continue.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

Dr. Eden Wells

Chief Medical Executive, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

Charges: Obstruction of justice (5-year felony), lying to a peace office (2-year misdemeanor)

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Wells allegedly provided false testimony about data she knew about the Legionnaires’ outbreak to an investigating officer, and she threatened to withhold funding from the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership unless the group ended its investigation into the outbreak’s cause. Governor Rick Snyder issued a statement defending both Wells and Lyon, saying that they have been “instrumental in Flint’s recovery. They have my full faith and confidence, and will remain on duty at D.H.H.S.”

Michigan Attorney General’s Office via AP

Liane Shekter-Smith

Director, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s drinking water division

Charges: Involuntary manslaughter (15-year felony), misconduct in office (5-year felony),willful neglect of duty (1-year misdemeanor)

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Under her leadership, the MDEQ drinking water division is alleged to have dismissed information about rising lead levels and the Legionnaires’ spike. Not only is she accused of failing “to take corrective action or notify public health officials,” according to the investigative team, “but, in fact took steps to mislead and conceal evidence from health officials in phone calls revealed by the investigation.” Shekter-Smith is, to date, the only person fired by the state because of the water crisis. Four months before her termination, she received a $2,652 performance bonus.

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Adam Rosenthal

Water Quality Analyst, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

Charges: Misconduct in office (5-year felony),tampering with evidence (4-year felony),conspiracy to tamper with evidence (4-year felony),willful neglect of duty (1-year misdemeanor)

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Working under Shekter-Smith, Rosenthal is accused of manipulating lead test results and falsely reporting lead levels as being below the federal action limit. He also allegedly was warned by Flint officials that the treatment plant was not ready for use, but dismissed their concerns.

Michigan Attorney General’s Office via AP

Patrick Cook

Specialist, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s community drinking water unit

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Charges: misconduct in office (5-year felony), conspiracy (20-year felony), willful neglect of duty (1-year misdemeanor)

As the person responsible for compliance with lead and copper regulations in drinking water, Cook signed the last permit needed to put the Flint water plant back into use. He’s accused of taking no corrective action after he became aware of water problems, and with misleading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with information he knew to be false about the need for corrosion control in Flint.

Michigan Attorney General’s Office via AP

Nancy Peeler

Director, Michigan Department of Health and Human Service’s program for maternal, infant, and childhood home visiting

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Charges: misconduct in office (5-year felony),conspiracy (20-year felony), willful neglect of duty (1-year misdemeanor)

According to investigators, Peeler knew Flint children were exposed to lead in the water, but suppressed information about it. In July 2015, she asked for an internal report on blood-lead levels in Flint kids. The report showed a spike the previous summer, shortly after the water switch, but it was never passed on to other officials. Amazingly, a false report was submitted instead.

Michigan Attorney General’s Office via AP

Robert Scott

Data Manager, Michigan Department of Health and Human Service’s Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program

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Charges: misconduct in office (5-year felony), conspiracy (20-year felony), willful neglect of duty (1-year misdemeanor)

After the July 2015 report that Peeler commissioned was set aside, Scott worked with her to create the second report—the false and misleading one—two days later. It said that there was no significant increase in the blood-lead levels of Flint kids in the summer of 2014, which wasn’t true.

Michigan Attorney General’s Office via AP

Corinne Miller

Director, Michigan Bureau of Epidemiology; epidemiologist, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

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Charges: misconduct in office (5-year felony), conspiracy (20-year felony), willful neglect of duty (1-year misdemeanor)

Miller was charged with failing to respond appropriately to the July 2015 report that showed high blood-lead levels in Flint kids, and with telling state health officials to delete emails about it. The now-retired epidemiologist pled no contest to the misdemeanor and agreed to cooperate with the investigation in exchange for felony charges being dropped. In March 2017, Miller was sentenced to one year of probation and 300 hours of community service. She must also pay $1,325 in court costs and fees, and write a letter apologizing to the people of Flint. The special prosecutor said that Miller “was the first one to come forward and face the music. And she is continuing to cooperate.”

Michigan Attorney General’s Office via AP

Michael Prysby

District 8 Engineer, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s drinking water division

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Charges: misconduct in office, two counts (5-year felony), conspiracy to tamper with evidence (4-year felony), tampering with evidence (4-year felony), treatment violation of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act (1-year misdemeanor), monitoring violation of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act (1-year misdemeanor)

He, along with the MDEQ’s Stephen Busch, is alleged to have instructed the City of Flint’s water quality supervisor, Michael Glasgow, to alter a 2015 report on the city’s water that would misleadingly lower the reported lead levels. He and Busch are also both accused of impeding an investigation into the cause of the Legionnaires’ outbreak.

Stephen Busch

District 8 Supervisor, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s drinking water division

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Charges: Involuntary manslaughter (15-year felony), misconduct in office, two counts (5-year felony), conspiracy to tamper with evidence (4-year felony), tampering with evidence (4-year felony), treatment violation of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act (1-year misdemeanor), monitoring violation of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act (1-year misdemeanor)

In February 2015, Busch told an official from the EPA that the Flint treatment plant used “optimized corrosion control” in the water. In fact, it did not—and this failure proved destructive to both city infrastructure and public health. He, along with Prysby, is also alleged to have instructed Glasgow to alter a 2015 report on lead in the city’s water that would misleadingly lower the reported levels. He and Prysby are also both accused of impeding an investigation into the cause of the Legionnaires’ outbreak.


EMERGENCY MANAGERS

AP

Darnell Earley

Emergency Manager, City of Flint, September 2013-January 2015

Charges: Involuntary manslaughter (15-year felony), false pretenses (20-year felony), conspiracy (20-year felony), misconduct in office (5-year felony), willful neglect of duty (1-year misdemeanor)

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Earley was the third in a string of four consecutive emergency managers appointed by the state to oversee fiscally distressed Flint between 2011 and 2015. He was in charge when the city switched to Flint River water, though that switch was approved by his predecessor. Earley and then-finance director Gerald Ambrose are charged with using a false story to land a bond deal the city needed to join a new regional water system, a decision that precipitated the temporary switch to Flint River water. Earley also allegedly agreed to the switch to river water even though he knew the city’s plant was not prepared to properly treat it, and so failed in his duty to protect public health.

AP

Gerald (Jerry) Ambrose

Emergency Manager, City of Flint, January 2015-April 2015

Charges: false pretenses (20-year felony), conspiracy (20-year felony), misconduct in office (5-year felony), willful neglect of duty (1-year misdemeanor)

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Ambrose was the last of the string of four EMs in Flint, and he had the shortest tenure. During his four months as the city’s chief authority, he rejected a city council vote to return to Detroit water in the face of water quality complaints. Ambrose is charged with obstructing a county investigation into the Legionnaires’ outbreak, and, as finance director under then-EM Earley, with using false pretenses to land the unusual bond deal to participate in a new water system. He also is charged with actively working to discontinue water from Detroit in favor of Flint River water treated at the city plant even though he knew the plant was not equipped for it, and thus failing in his duty to protect public health.


CITY OF FLINT

Michigan Attorney General’s Office via AP

Michael Glasgow

Lab and Water Quality Supervisor, City of Flint

Charges: tampering with evidence, two counts (4-year felony), willful neglect of duty (1-year misdemeanor)

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Glasgow allegedly tampered with a report about lead levels in the city’s water and failed in his responsibilities to safely treat water at the city plant. The Flint native has said that MDEQ officials told him to alter water reports by removing the highest lead results. Glasgow, who expressed concern about the water in early emails to state officials, pled no contest to the misdemeanor in May 2016 and agreed to assist investigators in exchange for the felony charge being dropped.

Howard Croft

Public Works Director, City of Flint, 2011-November 2015

Charges: involuntary manslaughter (15-year felony), false pretenses (20-year felony), conspiracy (20-year felony)

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This lifelong Flint resident was appointed by former emergency manager Michael Brown, the first in the series of the four EMs at the helm of Flint between 2011 and 2015. Croft resigned from his position a little more than a month after the city was reconnected to the Detroit water system. He’s accused of aiding and abetting EMs Earley and Ambrose in the suspect bond deal, and working to require the use of water treated at a plant that was unfit for service.

Daugherty Johnson

Utilities Administrator, City of Flint

Charges: false pretenses (20-year felony), conspiracy (20-year felony)

Working under Howard Croft as a caretaker of city utilities, Johnson, now retired, is accused of aiding and abetting EMs Earley and Ambrose in the bond deal, and working to require the use of water treated at a plant that was unfit for service.


PRIVATE INDUSTRY

Civil lawsuits will never be as sexy as criminal ones. But faceless corporations have to answer for their choices, too. These two lawsuits seek “to recover monetary damages, like in the hundreds of millions of dollars” for harm caused and prolonged by two massive corporations that were brought in as consultants to, supposedly, help Flint. The money would go to a special fund managed by the community for the community’s needs, rather than the state’s coffers.

Veolia

Charges:professional negligence, public nuisance, fraud

In February 2015, this giant French multinational water engineering company contracted with the City of Flint, while it was under emergency management and facing complaints from residents about the water. Veolia developed a report and gave a public presentation that declared the city’s water to be “in compliance with State and Federal regulations…the water is considered to meet drinking water standards.”

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In a civil lawsuit, the Attorney General alleges that Veolia failed to notice the worsening corrosion in the city’s lead-based water lines, or the lack of corrosion control in the water treatment. It argues that Veolia ignored what should have been red flags, like the city’s discolored water, and that the company’s negligence caused lead poisoning in Flint to worsen. The fraud charge holds Veolia responsible for its public statements that indicated the water was safe when it was not, and its professional recommendations that made a bad problem worse.

Not only does Veolia deny wrongdoing, it developed this little “Veolia Flint Facts” website to defend itself. It says the lawsuit is an “attempt to deflect responsibility from the government officials and representatives who caused and are responsible for this situation.”

Lockwood, Andrews & Newman (LAN)

Charges: professional negligence, public nuisance

LAN is a Houston-based company that contracted with Flint in 2013, when it was under emergency management, to help prepare the city’s water plant to treat water from the Flint River. As with Veolia, the AG’s civil lawsuit against LAN charges the company with professional misbehavior that worsened and prolonged the water crisis. In a 2014 compliance report, LAN made no mention of corrosion control, nor was corrosion treatment integrated into the plant’s preparations.

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In a second LAN report from 2015, the company again made no mention of lead or corrosion, and one of its recommendations to improve water quality—flushing fire hydrants—likely made the lead problem worse. By failing in its professional responsibilities, LAN, like Veolia, allegedly created a public nuisance: corroded pipes that continues to endanger the public health of Flint.

Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. She is working on a book about the Flint water crisis for Metropolitan Books.

This feature is part of Fusion’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more here.