FLINT, MI — One way or another, Rick Snyder will answer questions under oath about his role in the Flint water crisis in a federal courtroom on June 30.
And if, as expected, the former governor invokes his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself, attorneys involved in the civil bellwether trial will turn to the next-best thing — hours of previously unheard videotaped deposition testimony given by Snyder two years ago.
Attorneys for Veolia North America said Wednesday, June 22, that they intend to call Snyder to the witness stand on June 30 and an attorney for Snyder told MLive-The Flint Journal that his client will be present but has been advised not to answer questions.
Snyder is among nine indicted current and former city and state employees facing criminal charges tied to the water crisis. Five of those nine have also been called as witnesses in the civil trial that started 19 weeks ago in U.S. District Court in Ann Arbor.
Snyder and the four other potential witnesses were ordered to appear in court and to answer questions they were asked during their depositions by Judge Judith E. Levy, but each has appealed her decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled oral arguments on the issue of whether the five men waived their Fifth Amendment rights when they sat for depositions but not until late July when the civil trial is expected to have concluded.
Attorneys for Snyder, former Flint emergency managers Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Earley, former Snyder aide Richard Baird, and former Flint Department of Public Works Director Howard Croft have said their clients will invoke the 5th Amendment when called to testify unless required to by the Court of Appeals.
Each of the five testified in depositions before they were charged with crimes in January 2021.
The civil case Levy is presiding over involves four Flint children who have sued Veolia and Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam for professional negligence.
The companies each advised the city during the water crisis, and attorneys for the children claim they are partially responsible for injuries their clients suffered after drinking Flint water, which had elevated levels of lead.
Veolia and LAN dispute the children’s injuries and have said government officials like Snyder are solely responsible for any damages they suffered.
Snyder’s testimony — in person or through the use of his deposition — should provide new information about the former governor’s knowledge of the extent of problems with Flint’s water system while he led state government in 2014 and 2015.
He’s said previously that the water crisis was a failure of government at all levels but has only publicly answered detailed questions about the situation in an appearance before the U.S. House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform six years ago.
In that testimony, Snyder said he was repeatedly assured by state environmental officials that Flint’s water was safe to drink even as residents insisted something was wrong with its color, taste and smell after the city’s water source was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River for 17 months in 2014 and 2015.
An expert at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tried to raise an alarm about the potential for lead contamination in the water system but was silenced, and Snyder has said he only learned “that our state experts were wrong (and) Flint’s water had dangerous levels of lead” in October 2015.
Attorneys for the companies are particularly interested in putting Snyder and the other criminal defendants in front of the jury because their answers, including their refusal to testify, can be considered as jurors determine what degree of responsibility — if any — the consultants have for damages related to the water crisis.
Levey said earlier this month that she plans to handle that questioning of Snyder as she did when Ambrose and Croft appeared in court — outside the presence of the jury — invoking their 5th Amendment rights, and triggering the playing of their videotaped depositions for the jury.
On Wednesday, a part of Earley’s deposition was also played for the jury, and the judge has said Ambrose, Croft, Earley, Baird and Snyder will each be required to appear in person with the jury present to tell them they won’t answer questions that could later be used against them in their criminal cases.
Ambrose is expected to be the first of the five to appear before Levy with the jury present on Tuesday, June 28.
Snyder was charged in January 2021 with two misdemeanor counts of willful neglect of duty. His case is pending in Genesee District Court.
Earlier this month, a Veolia spokesman said the company was “committed to bringing to the stand indicted officials such as Governor Snyder, former (Flint) Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, and other government officials so that Flint families and the public can finally hear the truth.”
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