Former Michigan governor Rick Snyder appeared in a federal courtroom in Ann Arbor on Thursday, where he told Judge Judith Levy that he would exercise his fifth amendment rights if called to testify in an ongoing civil lawsuit trial there.
Mr Snyder, a two-term Republican governor from Battle Creek, presided over the state when the drinking water in majority-Black city of Flint was contaminated with lead — exposing some 100,000 residents to dangerously-elevated lead levels.
“Based on advice of counsel I would exercise my Fifth Amendment rights,” Mr Snyder said in testimony quoted by The Detroit News.
In January of last year, Mr Snyder and eight other state officials were charged with 34 felonies and seven misdemeanours for their handling of the crisis. Mr Snyder is facing two misdemeanour counts of wilful neglect of duty for his failure to act swiftly to get Flint clean water in a separate matter, though a Michigan Supreme Court ruling earlier this week could nullify those indictments.
The jury was not present for Mr Snyder’s courtroom appearance on Thursday. The appearance came partway through a presentation to jurors of a recording of Mr Snyder’s 2020 deposition in the case, which came before he had personally been charged for his role in the crisis.
Ms Levy, the judge, has ruled that Mr Snyder effectively waived his fifth amendment right by giving the deposition — though Mr Snyder has appealed her ruling to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
While that appeal is pending, Ms Levy is allowing Mr Snyder to avoid testifying without holding him in contempt of court.
Mr Snyder’s second term as governor was dominated by his insufficient response to the water crisis, with numerous activists and Flint residents calling on him to resign and be prosecuted. The crisis began in 2014 after Flint switched its water source from treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water to the Flint River, but Mr Snyder did not declare a state of emergency until 2016.
The effects of the water crisis in Flint, a one-time automobile manufacturing hub where the current median household income is just over $30,000 (£24,760) are expected to be devastating.
One expert, Harvard University’s Philippe Grandjean, has estimated that the cost of lost income and other societal costs as a result of lead poisoning in the city could in the future total more than a billion dollars.
Lead poisoning is known to be especially damaging to children, who are at a more acute risk of developing long-term complications like Alzheimer’s disease. As many as 12,000 children were exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead during the crisis.
Mr Snyder was not, by any means, the only high-ranking public official who incurred Flint’s wrath during the crisis. President Barack Obama visited Flint in 2016, and, after coughing during a speech, asked for a glass of water and took a sip — despite a number experts at the time maintaining that the city’s water was still not safe to drink.
Victims of the water crisis have been awarded more than $600m in a separate suit.