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Federal Judge Rules Former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Four Others Must Testify in Flint Water Crisis Case

Rick Snyder via SAUL LOEB_AFP_Getty Images

Former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder

Former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and four others will have to give testimony in a civil trial related to the Flint water crisis.

U.S. District Court Judge Judith E. Levy, a Barack Obama appointee, denied the motion to quash subpoenas to testify that was brought by Snyder, his former advisor Richard Baird, former Flint Public Works Director Howard Croft, and former city emergency managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose.

The lawsuit was waged by four individuals who were children at the time of the Flint water crisis. They named engineering firms Veolia North America (VNA) and Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam along with numerous individuals, including Snyder, for their alleged roles in the crisis that led to plaintiffs’ exposure to lead and other contaminants in drinking water in 2014 and 2015.

The civil claims against Snyder and the other individuals reached a settlement after the defendants took part in depositions, but the claims against the engineering firms continue.

All five former officials are also facing criminal charges in the water crisis. Snyder is charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty under Michigan law, each of which carries a penalty of up to a year of jail time or a fine of up to $1,000.

In the civil case, Snyder and the others argued that they should not be compelled to testify because they would only invoke their constitutional rights against self-incrimination. Their arguments might have worked if they had not already given lengthy depositions in a different case that preceded their criminal charges.

In a 21-page order, Judge Levy denied the defendants’ motion to quash the subpoenas, reasoning that because Snyder and the others voluntarily answered deposition questions, they are not entitled to “blanket immunity” from questioning at trial. Levy explained:

Despite their evident awareness of the risk of criminal prosecution, the ICDs—like the other movants— ultimately chose to answer every question posed to them at their depositions without invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination. Snyder, who was a party to the litigation throughout the time these arguments were made by [the defendants], would have had notice of these issues and the Court’s rulings.

The lawsuit seeks to hold the engineering companies liable for providing improper advice that lead to contaminated water in the drinking supply. The companies deny wrongdoing.

Judge Levy approved a $626 million settlement last November against government entities, a hospital and another engineering firm.

A VNA spokesperson called the judge’s ruling a “victory” for the “people of Flint, who have waited far too long for government officials to answer questions under oath in public.”

“We all know that government failures were responsible for the disaster in Flint, and, as a result of yesterday’s ruling, the jury and the public will hear directly from those most responsible for this tragedy,” the spokesperson said in a statement to Law&Crime.

[image via Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images]

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos