Dr. Eden Wells, Chief Medical Executive at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, faces a fresh felony charge of involuntary manslaughter in connection with at least a dozen deaths from municipal water contaminated by Legionnaires’ disease. The scandal surrounding the Flint water supply reached new heights this week as the number of officials facing manslaughter charges rises to six.
According to experts, Legionnaires’ disease “is a type of pneumonia caused by bacteria that thrive in warm water and infect the lungs. People can get sick if they inhale mist or vapor, typically from cooling systems.”
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced that along with manslaughter, Wells now faces a new charge of misconduct in office. Dr. Wells and her attorney were surprised to learn of the added charges when she appeared for a Monday hearing on obstruction of justice and lying to investigators.
Although there are twelve known deaths, prosecutors decided to concentrate on the case of Robert Skidmore. The 85-year-old Genesee man died from the contaminated water. Officials are charged with failing to act in order to prevent his death.
Five other city and state officials were charged with involuntary manslaughter for their roles in the crisis and its cover-up, including Nick Lyon, who was Director of Health and Human Services. If convicted, the six are each looking at up to 15 years in prison.
Special prosecutor Todd Flood told the court Monday he was filing the new charges based on information that came to light in related testimony in a separate trial last week. “I really can’t get into the details of it but I think we’d be derelict if we didn’t charge her,” the attorney related after the hearing. “Based on a new review of other documents and testimony that came out last week, we believe that discovery put us in this place.”
HHS deputy director Tim Becker, one of last week’s witnesses in the trial for Nick Lyon, who is also charged with involuntary manslaughter and obstruction of justice, testified, “a January 2015 report showed 45 Legionnaires’ disease cases in the Flint area. He also “acknowledged the form of pneumonia could kill somebody,” Becker vowed, “a public warning could have been issued then about the outbreak.” Another witness, Dr. Marcus Zervos, swore,”the state needed to give the public and medical providers more notice about Legionnaires’ cases to save lives.”
Because of the new charges, Well’s next hearing has been put off until the 6th of November. She remains on the job despite the charges that she knew of the outbreak in March of 2015 but didn’t say anything.
Governor Rick Snyder stood up for Lyon and Wells in the press. “Director Lyon and Dr. Eden Wells, like every other person who has been charged with a crime by Bill Schuette, are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Snyder said in a statement. “Some state employees were charged over a year ago and have been suspended from work since that time. They still have not had their day in court. That is not justice for Flint nor for those who have been charged. Director Lyon and Dr. Wells have been and continue to be instrumental in Flint’s recovery. They have my full faith and confidence, and will remain on duty at DHHS.”
Wells’ attorney, Jerold Lax, was unphased by the new charges. Saying he would “fully review any information the prosecution provides.” Lax mentioned, he “had some indication that more charges might be coming.” Mr. Lax told the court he and his team were prepared to proceed on the original charge but “under the circumstances, we reluctantly agree to an adjournment so as to be able to prepare to deal with the new charges that have been filed.”
Wells was there Monday morning for a hearing on charges of not only giving false testimony to a special agent but “threatening to withhold state aid from the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership if the partnership didn’t stop its probe into the source of the Legionnaires’ outbreak in the Flint area.”
Judge William Crawford II of 67th District Court will have the deciding word on approving new charges. He will rule after the “preliminary examination” expected to consume several days of testimony.