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Three Michigan officials charged in Flint toxic water crisis

FLINT, Mich. (Reuters) - Three Michigan state and local officials were criminally charged on Wednesday in an investigation into dangerous lead levels in the city of Flint’s drinking water, and the state attorney general said there would be more charges to come.

Genesee District Judge Tracy Collier-Nix authorized charges against Flint employee Michael Glasgow and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) employees Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette told a news conference to announce the charges that it was “only the beginning and there will be more to come.” He said the defendants were cooperating with investigators.

The three could not be reached for comment.

Schuette added nothing was off the table when asked if Michigan Governor Rick Snyder could face charges. Snyder has been criticized for the administration’s handling of the crisis, and he has apologized but said he would not resign.

The Republican governor told a news conference in the capital, Lansing, later on Wednesday that he did not believe he had done anything criminally wrong in relation to the water crisis. He said his office has been cooperating with the state probe but that he himself had not been questioned.

“I’m not looking for vindication. This is about getting to the truth,” said Snyder, who called the charges “deeply troubling” and emphasized the state would pursue wrongdoing and hold people accountable.

Flint, which has about 100,000 people, was under control of a state-appointed emergency manager in 2014 when it switched its source of water from Detroit’s municipal system to the Flint River to save money. The city switched back in October.

The river water was more corrosive than the Detroit system’s and caused more lead to leach from its aging pipes. Lead can be toxic and children are especially vulnerable. The crisis has prompted lawsuits by parents who say their children are showing dangerously high blood levels of lead.

Glasgow, 40, was charged with tampering with evidence by falsifying reports to state environmental officials, and willful neglect of duty, Schuette said.

Busch, 40, and Prysby, 53, were charged with five and six counts, respectively, including misconduct in office, tampering with evidence and violation of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act, Schuette said. The attorney general said the two men misled authorities and altered results in the testing of lead levels in the water in Flint homes.

“They had a duty to protect the health of families and citizens of Flint,” Schuette said. “They failed.”

If convicted, Glasgow faces up to five years in prison and $6,000 in fines, while Busch faces up to 15 years and $35,000 in fines, and Prysby faces up to 20 years and $45,000 in fines, according to court documents.

Glasgow on Wednesday was placed on unpaid leave, city of Flint spokeswoman Kristin Moore said. The MDEQ officials charged were also suspended without pay as of Wednesday, Melanie Brown, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an email.

Dena Altheide, a court administrator, said court dates and arraignments had not been set.

FIRST STEP

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said holding people responsible was a good first step but that the city still needed the resources to fix the issue, including swapping out all the old lead pipes.

Wayne State University law professor Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor, said what happened in Flint was wrong, but whether it was criminal was a very different question.

“You have to now prove exactly what they did that violated the law. That’s just not easy,” Henning said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit and the FBI are independently investigating the crisis, looking for any violations of federal law, said Gina Balaya, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In January, Michigan’s Schuette named a special prosecutor to lead the investigation into whether criminal charges should be filed.

“The criminal charges against MDEQ officials are one step towards justice for the families of Flint who were poisoned as a result of the actions of Governor Snyder’s administration,” U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, said in a statement.

Cummings and other House Democrats have called for Snyder to step down.

Also on Wednesday, Democrats in the U.S. Senate introduced a legislative package to invest more than $70 billion over the next 10 years through loans, grants and tax credits in the country’s crumbling water infrastructure and lead relief programs. (Additional reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey in Washington, and David Bailey in Minneapolis)

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