Lt. Gov. Brian Calley on Wednesday escalated his criticism of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette's prosecution of top state officials for the Flint water crisis, calling it a "gross abuse of power" intended to aid Schuette's run for governor.
The comments from Calley, who also is seeking the Republican gubernatorial nomination, were the strongest to date from Gov. Rick Snyder's administration.
The investigation has led 15 current or former government officials to be charged, including two members of the term-limited governor's cabinet — Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells. His probable cause hearing on manslaughter and other charges began seven months ago. Hers started in November.
"The further the trials go on the more obvious it becomes that they are show trials. They're political stunts and it is a gross abuse of power," Calley told the AP in a phone interview on the four-year anniversary of Flint's fateful municipal water switch. He cited how two "heroes" who helped expose the lead-contaminated water in 2015 — Virginia Tech University researcher Marc Edwards and Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha — were recently called to testify on the behalf of Wells and Lyon.
"It brings into focus that much more clearly how political this whole process has been," he said. "The fact that it is taking this much just to get by the extraordinarily low legal hurdle of a preliminary exam should tell us something. I believe that these processes have been dragged out because they thought it was going to be a popular election-year process."
A Schuette spokeswoman declined comment, saying it would be improper to do so since the cases are before judges. He previously has pushed back against such criticism, saying he is enforcing the law and that Flint residents who were poisoned by lead in their water or who died in a Legionnaires' disease outbreak deserve their day in court.
If the judges rule there is probable cause that crimes were committed, Lyon and Wells will go to trial. Four defendants reached plea deals with special prosecutor Todd Flood, while nine others still face charges.
Snyder, who has apologized for his administration's role in causing and prolonging the public health emergency, has not been charged and has backed Wells and Lyon by keeping them in their jobs. While he too has criticized the slow pace of the prosecutions, Calley went further Wednesday. He called it a "sickening" abuse of the criminal justice system, contended that there were "highly unusual" delays between when charges were filed and when the preliminary exams began, and said the hearings themselves have been very long.
Calley's comments drew fire from Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, a Schuette ally who said Wednesday night that the lead investigator in the Flint probe — Andy Arena, who once led Detroit's FBI office — is "a guy I respect a great deal."
"It would probably behoove Calley to learn how the criminal justice system works and in particular this case," he said. "I understand he's trying to get oxygen in his governor's run. But he needs to understand that there's a process in the criminal justice world, and that (the) investigation is being headed up by a respected investigator, No. 1, and No. 2 any requested charges go before an independent judge for authorization based on probable cause. Obviously charges have been issued."
Calley said he agrees that the investigation itself was "absolutely appropriate," but he echoed Democrats' criticism that Schuette delayed starting "until the TV cameras showed up" despite resident complaints. Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely again said it would be inappropriate to comment, citing the pending litigation.
Flint ran into extraordinary trouble when emergency managers appointed by Snyder put the city on water from the Flint River in 2014 while a pipeline was being built to Lake Huron. The corrosive water was not properly treated due to an incorrect reading of federal regulations by state regulators, and lead leached from old plumbing into homes and led to elevated levels of the toxin in children.
Snyder recently ended free bottled water for Flint residents, citing the improved quality of the tap water. The move has angered residents, been defended by Calley and drawn criticism from Schuette, who said the bottled water distribution should continue until lead pipes have been replaced and trust in government has been restored.