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Did Politics Play a Role in Sparing Dan Wyant from Schuette Prosecution on Flint?

It’s been nearly three years since Flint’s water crisis made national news, yet despite investigations placing a majority of the blame on the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, the department’s then-director, Dan Wyant, walks a free man to this day.

In December 2015, Wyant resigned from a post he had held for four years. That same day, information from a bipartisan task force put together by Republican Governor Rick Snyder ripped the DEQ for its carelessness in handling the Flint water crisis from the start.

In the executive summary, that report said the water crisis was “a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, an environmental injustice.” It said the DEQ “failed in its fundamental responsibility to effectively enforce drinking water regulations,” and the state’s Department of Health and Human Services “failed to adequately and promptly act to protect public health.”

“Both agencies, but principally the MDEQ, stubbornly worked to discredit and dismiss others’ attempts to bring the issues of unsafe water, lead contamination, and increased cases of (Legionnaires’ disease) to light,” the report said.

In January 2016, Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette – who is now running for governor – announced his office would investigate the Flint water crisis themselves, and by June 2017, Schuette saw fit to charge the state Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon with involuntary manslaughter, among other charges. That case is still pending.

But what about Wyant, who oversaw the DEQ, which the Task Force’s report deemed as “principally” responsible?

“I am saddened to hear of the resignation of Department of Environment Quality Director Dan Wyant,” Schuette said at the time Wyant resigned.

Indeed, in the more than two years since Schuette’s office announced it would investigate and ultimately press charges against various government officials, Wyant has never been named.

Now, emails obtained by watchdog group Progress Michigan and subsequent research into Scheutte and Wyant’s relationship is shining some light as to why that may have been the case. Wyant and Schuette have had a professional and political relationship that stretches back to the Engler administration.

Among the emails released by Progress Michigan is one showing Wyant listed among 15 vote tabulators assigned to ensure “voter integrity” when Schuette first ran for attorney general in 2010 and sought the official nomination from the Republican Party at its convention held on August 27, 2010.

But that wasn’t the first time the two had interacted. In fact, the two have a storied history.

In 1990, Schuette ran an unsuccessful effort to unseat Democratic then-U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and was facing the prospect of not holding elected office for the first time since winning his first election in 1984. Fortunate for him, John Engler became governor, and the state’s Department of Agriculture director had resigned accordingly. Engler named Scheutte the new director of that department in 1991.

Upon being named the Michigan Department of Agriculture director, Schuette had to bring together a staff. Wyant was named Schuette’s legislative liaison — the person who would work with legislators to implement what would’ve been then-Director Schuette’s (and then-Governor Engler’s) agenda for the Department of Agriculture.

Wyant held that position for Schuette’s entire tenure as director of that agency, through 1994, at which time Schuette had jumped ship to run for (and win) an open state Senate seat in 1994. Engler was re-elected in November 1994. Shortly after, in 1995, Wyant left the agriculture department to serve as Engler’s director of the Office of Legislative Affairs – the governor’s primary liaison with the state House and Senate- and was named by Engler the new director of the Department of Agriculture in 1996. Schuette remained a state senator through 2002.

Wyant remained director of the Department of Agriculture into part of Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm’s first term as governor – through 2005 – but then went back to the private sector until current Republican Governor Rick Snyder tapped him to now lead the Department of Environmental Quality in 2011.

Asked for comment on this story, Melissa Mays, one of the first Flint whistleblowers and continued activist for Water You Fighting For, responded, “It seems that nepotism runs strong through our state government. They provide each other cushy jobs and cover for them when they fail at said jobs. CYA looks to be top priority.

“I believe that no job title or position should protect you from accountability and responsibility to the people you harmed when you refused to do your job and protect the people who rely on you. Our lives and our futures should be valued so no one makes any decisions that harm people directly or put us as collateral damage,” Mays said. “It is scary to see the decision-makers who set the tone for their office or department and are supposed to lead and choose to ignore dangers to the public and not be held responsible if people die.”

As mentioned above, Lyon is the highest-ranking official facing charges from Schuette, though in late July, a Genesee County judge delayed the decision on whether Lyon’s case will actually go to trial.

Danielle Emerson

Danielle Emerson