FLINT (WWJ/AP) - Five people, including the head of Michigan's health department, were charged Wednesday with involuntary manslaughter in an investigation of Flint's lead-contaminated water, all blamed in the death of an 85-year-old man who had Legionnaires' disease.
Nick Lyon became the highest-ranking member of Gov. Rick Snyder's administration to be snagged in a criminal investigation of how Flint's water system became poisoned after officials tapped the Flint River in 2014.
Lyon, director of the Health and Human Services Department, is accused of failing to alert the public about an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in the Flint area, which has been linked by some experts to poor water quality in 2014-15. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison.
"The health crisis in Flint has created a trust crisis in Michigan government, exposing a serious lack of confidence in leaders to accept responsibility and solve problems," said Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.
Lyon also is charged with misconduct in office for allegedly obstructing university researchers who are studying if the surge in cases was linked to the Flint River.
The others are people who were already facing charges. They are: Darnell Earley, who was Flint's emergency manager when the city used the river; Howard Croft, who ran Flint's public works department; Liane Shekter Smith; and Stephen Busch. Shekter Smith and Busch were state environmental regulators.
The state's chief medical officer, Dr. Eden Wells, was also charged Wednesday with obstruction of justice and lying to an investigator.
After the charges were announced, Snyder issued a statement in support of Lyon and Wells, saying both are "presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty."
"Some state employees were charged over a year ago and have been suspended from work since that time," the statement read. "They still have not had their day in court. That is not justice for Flint nor for those who have been charged. Director Lyon and Dr. Wells have been and continue to be instrumental in Flint's recovery. They have my full faith and confidence, and will remain on duty at DHHS."
Snyder went on to say Lyon is a strong leader who remains completely committed to Flint's recovery.
In a statement released later in the day attorneys Chip Chamberlain and Larry Williey, who will be defending Lyon, said they "absolutely and vehemently dispute" the "baseless" charges and expect the court system to vindicate their client.
"The true facts simply do not support the prosecution's claims. This case appears to be a misguided theory looking for facts that do not exist," reads the statement by the Willey Chamberlain law firm. "To that point, we've witnessed numerous press conferences by the prosecution that have been intentionally prejudicial to the process and unfair to those targeted. Worse yet, they have made many statements that are completely false."
© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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