In search of explanations and facts: New indictments were announced this week in Flint.
On Tuesday night, Rachel Maddow devoted more than half her program to the general topic. (Huge chunks of time were burned.) On Wednesday morning, the new indictments were reported in the New York Times.
The reports were instructive and not so instructive. Let's start with the Times.
Below, you see the start of Monica Davey's news report, which got prominent placement in the hard-copy Times. So far, we'd call this instructive and not so instructive. Hard-copy banner included:
DAVEY (12/21/16): 2 Former Flint Emergency Managers Are Charged Over Tainted WaterHere's what we've seen so far:
A criminal investigation into this city’s water crisis reached into the top ranks of supervision over Flint on Tuesday as Michigan officials announced felony charges against two former state-appointed emergency managers, accusing them of fixating on saving money rather than on the safety of residents.
The managers, who were appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to lead Flint out of fiscal distress, were charged over their roles in the public health crisis prompted by the city’s switch to a new water source, as well as the delays in responding to residents’ complaints as they suffered the devastating effects.
Announcing the charges at a banquet center not far from the Flint River, Bill Schuette, the state’s attorney general, described “a fixation on finances and balance sheets” as at the root of what happened in Flint, where the water has been tied to the lead poisoning of children and the deaths of 12 people from Legionnaires’ disease.
“All too prevalent in this Flint water investigation was a priority on balance sheets and finances rather than health and safety of the citizens of Flint,” said Mr. Schuette, a Republican who is seen as a possible candidate for governor in 2018.
Two former emergency managers have been "accus[ed] of fixating on saving money rather than on the safety of residents."
That sounds like a bad thing to do. On its face, that isn't a crime.
We note that prosecutor Bill Schuette is "seen as a possible candidate for governor in 2018." Might this explain the political assessments which seem to dominate his first quoted remarks?
Please note: We don't know who did what in the case of Flint. We don't know who may or may not have engaged in criminal conduct—but as Davey began explaining the charges, we weren't even sure we knew what's being alleged.
In Davey's next graf, she reported that the two emergency managers face "charges of false pretenses, conspiracy to commit false pretenses, misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty." So far, we found this unclear.
That said, the two emergency managers seem to be joining a cast of thousands. In paragraph 10, Davey began calling the roll of the indicted:
DAVEY: The state criminal investigation into Flint’s water crisis, opened in January, previously had led to charges against one employee of Flint’s water plant and eight state officials, including a state epidemiologist and the former leader of Michigan’s municipal drinking water office.By our count, this means that thirteen city and state officials have now been charged with criminal conduct. Needless to say, Maddow's show was dominated by the prayer that Governor Snyder might be added to the list.
Of those nine, two have accepted plea deals. The rest are awaiting trial, and some have sought the dismissal of the charges against them.
On Tuesday, two additional Flint officials were also charged with crimes. Howard Croft, a former director of the city’s Public Works Department, and Daugherty Johnson, a former utilities director for the department, were accused of false pretenses and conspiracy to commit false pretenses.
Did thirteen different officials (and counting) actually commit crimes? We have no way of knowing. Beyond that, we have no real idea what a charge of "false pretenses and conspiracy to commit false pretenses" actually consists in.
At this point, Davey began detailing the charges against emergency managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose. For ourselves, we were struck by the lack of clarity at the end of this passage:
DAVEY (continuing directly): Mr. Earley oversaw Flint as its emergency manager from late 2013 until early 2015...Mr. Ambrose worked as a finance director under Flint’s emergency managers and then was appointed in 2015 to become the emergency manager. The state charges allege that they used a false story to secure an unusual bond deal so Flint could take part in a regional water pipeline plan.In the first two paragraphs, the managers stand accused of seeking money for one purpose, using it for another.
Since it was in financial distress, Mr. Schuette said, Flint was not permitted to borrow money unless it could prove a significant emergency. To get a state waiver, the city claimed it needed the money for an emergency cleanup of a retention pond. But Mr. Schuette said the money was actually intended for the long-term water project.
Mr. Schuette said they also agreed, as part of that project, to switch temporarily to Flint River water, even though they knew the city’s treatment plant was not ready to handle the treatment necessary to prevent contamination.
In the end, officials failed to properly treat the new water with chemicals that would prevent materials from corroding and leaching metals like lead.
We'll assume that this may happen fairly often. On its face, such conduct is illegal, of course. That said, depending on what you think of the projects at issue, you may not find this kind of conduct so awful.
In the last two paragraphs, the rubber starts hitting the road. Or does it? We were struck by something resembling a contradiction of sorts:
In the third paragraph, we're told that the emergency managers switched Flint over to river water "even though they knew the city’s treatment plant was not ready to handle the treatment necessary to prevent contamination."
That sounds like a bad thing to do. On the other hand, we're immediately told that "officials"—we aren't told which officials—"failed to treat the water with chemicals" which would have prevented the leaching of lead.
Here's our question:
If those chemicals had been used "in the end," would everything have been OK? Do you mind if we suspect that Davey may not exactly know?
Years later, can anyone explain the basics of what happened here? If we're talking about journalists, we'll guess the answer is no.
For starters, no one actually cares about what happened here. That's fairly obvious, especially if you've watched the Maddow Show.
Don't get us wrong—Maddow seems to exude concern. That said, her intermittent "reporting" on Flint turns on one obvious burning passion—her desire to see Governor Snyder thrown head-first into jail.
Because it's so clear that this is her interest, we would say that her treatment of this topic has tended toward repulsive. We'll cover this in more detail in tomorrow's "Year(s) in Review."
On Tuesday night, Maddow prayed for Snyder's scalp. She dreamed of lengthy prison terms for the emergency managers. She demonstrated her lack of interest in the key word "alleged."
She let us see how much she loves the deeply upsetting word "poisoned." She actually said what's shown below. It's why she should be off the air:
MADDOW (12/20/16): And, of course, famously, there was the mass lead poisoning of the entire city of Flint, including thousands of kids who will live for the rest of their lives with the consequences of having been poisoned by lead, having lead exposure in their drink water when they are kids. It is something you don`t grow out of. It is something for which there is no magic anecdote."The mass lead poisoning of the entire city of Flint?" Maddow, AKA The Nun, lives for such thrilling descriptions. The key word "poisoned" does lots of work when she sells us this car.
It's time to tell the truth about Maddow. She turns out to be a bit unhinged. In the absence of supervision, she shouldn't be on the air.
Over the past few years, Kevin Drum has been cast in the role of Gallant, playing opposite Maddow's Goofus, on the subject of Flint. Maddow dreams of locking them up. Drum has supplied basic facts.
More tomorrow as we finish our award-winning Year(s) in Review reports.