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Potential Obstruction and Coverup: Top Officials’ State-Issued Phones Mysteriously ‘Wiped’ of Data in Flint Water Crisis Probe


Rick Snyder via SAUL LOEB_AFP_Getty Images

Numerous potentially key pieces of evidence in the ongoing Flint water crisis investigation that should have been retained “indefinitely” were deleted by government actors in the state of Michigan.  That’s according to a bombshell Wednesday report in The Intercept and the Detroit Metro Times.

The report says several officials close to then-GOP governor Rick Snyder had their state-issued cellular phones “wiped” of all text messages during a time period crucial to the criminal investigation.

Dr. Eden Wells was the onetime chief medical executive for the Wolverine State. She obtained that job in May 2015 — at least seven months after the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services was aware of a deadly Legionnaires’ outbreak in Flint which was ultimately determined to have been caused by increased lead levels in the city’s municipal water supply. What Wells knew and when she knew it would have been highly relevant to the since-shuttered initial inquiry — if investigators had the records and could prove it, of course.

But, according to the report, those records mysteriously vanished. The exposé by Jordan Chariton and Jenn Dize notes:

But when investigators obtained access to Wells’s phone, they discovered something unusual. “For Dr. Wells’ phone the earliest message is from November 12, 2015,” then-Flint special prosecutor Todd Flood wrote in a subpoena petition obtained by The Intercept. During the key period that investigators were probing, no messages were found. In 2018, a judge ruled that Wells would have to stand trial for involuntary manslaughter, along with obstruction of justice, over her role in the water crisis. (Those charges were dropped by current Attorney General Dana Nessel in 2019; in January 2021, Nessel’s Flint water prosecutors recharged Wells with involuntary manslaughter, misconduct in office, and neglect of duty.)

The report says a similar story more or less repeated itself for numerous other top officials in former governor Snyder’s administration.

Then-MDHHS chief deputy director Tim Becker‘s phone, upon being turned over to investigators, lacked any text messages prior to April 14, 2016 — two months before he would exit that role. Becker first raised questions about the Legionella outbreak in January 2015.

Patricia Kane is an epidemiologist with MDHHS who previously testified that Wells told her to lie about blood-lead levels discovered in Flint’s children. Investigators only found seven total text messages on her phone. Sarah Lyon-Callo, the director of the state Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health, who Wells communicated with about accusations that the Snyder administration was engaged in a coverup, had no messages on her phone before June 2016.

“Again, for some strange reason the earliest text message in time on her device begins June 20, 2016,” special prosecutor Flood noted.

Wesley Priem, onetime manager of MDHHS’s Lead and Healthy Homes program–who falsely challenged the findings of a pediatrician concerned about Flint children’s high blood-levels–had only one text message on his state-issued phone when it was turned over to authorities.

Sara Wurfel served as Snyder’s press secretary during the height of the Republican governor’s damage control efforts when the water crisis scandal broke. She told Flood her phone had been “wiped” when she left that job in November 2015 — though later attempted to backtrack a bit.

“Do you have text messages from 2015 currently [on your phone]?” Flood asked Wurfel.

“No,” she replied. “So when I left the governor’s office, everything got wiped. I mean, when — I turned in my phone, it got wiped.”

According to Chariton and Dize, however, the governor’s former spox was at a something not entirely unlike a loss when asked to account for those previously non-public admissions.

“Not sure what you’re referring to — please share if there’s a specific document, item, etc.,” she told the outlet.

Follow up questions that clarified the question were then ignored by Wurfel, according to The Intercept and the Detroit Metro Times.

The timing of the press-aide-focused data deletion effort stands out as particularly suspect. Wurfel left the careening Snyder administration after a civil lawsuit was filed against it and one month before the first criminal investigation was announced.

Experts insist the phone wiping practice was highly unusual.

Again, the report explains at length:

“That is not standard,” a former Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget, or DTMB, official who worked for the state during this period and was involved with state data preservation told The Intercept about Wurfel’s phone being wiped upon leaving her role as Snyder’s press secretary. “There are retention schedules that every agency, including the governor’s office, is supposed to adhere to,” said the ex-official, adding that for the governor’s office, data is supposed to be retained for at least a year after an official leaves. But with potential litigation looming, “it should’ve been held indefinitely,” the official concluded. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional retaliation.

Nessel fired Flood in April 2019 after the discovery of 23 boxes worth of additional documents, hard drives and cellular phones said to be relevant to the investigation. The Democrat alleged that under Flood, discovery “was not fully and properly pursued from the onset of this investigation.” Flood, for his part, chalked many of those issues up to intransigence, delay and obfuscation by Snyder and his legal defense team.

In June 2019, the investigation was more or less shelved and started from scratch. Charges against several Snyder era officials — including those whose cellular phones were wiped clean — were dropped.

With fresh-resounding echoes of an alleged official coverup over the extant water crisis that has killed some and damaged the lives of others in the forgotten, largely Black rustbelt city, attention has now shifted to what the current Democratic administration plans to do about those revelations.

None of the officials named in The Intercept’s report have been heretofore charged with obstruction of justice over the wiped data.  Nessel’s office has also not charged Snyder with involuntary manslaughter — the charge several other defendants face.

Law&Crime reached out to Nessel’s office for comment on this article but no response was forthcoming at the time of publication.

[image via SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images]

Editor’s note: this article has been amended for clarity regarding Wurfel’s responses.

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