Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has inked agreements with two law firms to sort through documents and conduct other legal work in relation to the lawsuits brought against him by Flint residents and the ongoing investigations into the water crisis in that city. Now Progress Michigan, a state advocacy group, has filed a legal complaint alleging that Snyder’s request to use state money to pay those legal fees violates a state law.
On a call with press on Friday, Lonnie Scott, Progress Michigan Executive Director, said that the group believes state law requires him to set up a legal defense fund to raise private money to cover the costs of dealing with any criminal charges, of which there are at least two lodged against him, and disclose those sources. “This is clearly for Snyder’s personal legal defense,” Scott said. “Governor Snyder has a net worth of roughly $200 million. He can certainly afford and should be required to pay for his own legal bills.”
While the act doesn’t stipulate that public officials cannot use public funds for legal defense against criminal charges, Mark Brewer, legal counsel for Progress Michigan, argues it’s the entire premise of the law. “It’s unprecedented what the governor is trying to do here,” he said. “The state has never paid to protect an official against criminal charges.”
“We think this should be a message to anyone who wants to run the state like a business,” Scott added. Snyder came to office running on his experience in the private sector, particularly as an accountant, calling himself a tough nerd. “The state of Michigan is not your personal piggybank, and we will not let you run it into the ground.”
Instead, the group wants the money Snyder requested to be put toward Flint, going to pipe replacement, full reimbursement for residents who were paying the highest water bills in the country while their water was contaminated, and wraparound services for families and children who have been poisoned by lead.
The agreements that Snyder is seeking approval of from the State Administrative Board Finance and Claims Committee stipulate that the law firms will be paid as much as $1.2 million combined, according to an agenda for the board. And the attorneys are making a pretty penny in hourly rates. The highest is charging $540 an hour, according to records obtained by MLive, while three other attorneys will get $400 or more per hour. Yet a 2014 study found the median billing rate for an attorney in Michigan was just $245 an hour. “The fact that a counsel has such experience is a positive thing for getting the work done, even though no one in the Governor’s Office did anything criminal,” Snyder spokesperson Ari Adler told MLive. “We simply do not have the internal resources and expertise available to address such large legal demands and needed to turn to outside counsel for assistance.”
Adler previously told The Detroit News the firms were already going to be paid about a half million dollars through the end of this year, but the contracts were expanded in anticipation of work related to various lawsuits, investigations, and public records requests. “This work is being done to ensure that state government is being transparent, so the use of tax dollars is appropriate,” he said.
The state board will decide whether to approve Snyder’s requests next Friday, and Progress Michigan is urging it not to. “We intend to fight this gross misuse of taxpayer funds to the end,” Scott said.
A number of lawsuits have been filed over the water contamination that led to widespread lead poisoning, including many aimed at Snyder himself.
The use of state funds for the legal fees has already drawn ire from Snyder’s critics. “It’s beyond outrageous that Snyder wants to take $1.2 million from Michigan taxpayers to pay for defense attorneys over his involvement in the poisoning of Flint’s water,” the state’s Democratic Party Chair Brandon Dillon said in a statement. “That money should go toward replacing lead pipes and getting safe drinking water to Flint families, not for Snyder’s defense attorneys.”
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Democrat from Flint, said in a statement, “Paying more for high-priced lawyers than we are for school nurses or fully refunding victims is another kick in the teeth to taxpayers and my community. Our priority should be sending every resource we can to removing pipes and protecting kids, not covering legal fees.”
The agenda also shows that the state attorney general, Bill Schuette, has requested $1.5 million in legal fees paid through state general funding to Flood Law for his investigation into the Flint water crisis. That effort already came under fire when Schuette appointed Todd Flood, a former prosecutor and a donor to both Schuette and Snyder, as special counsel heading up the investigation to avoid a potential conflict of interest. Under the new funding request, Flood and nine other special assistant attorneys general will be paid $400 an hour, while the two chief investigators will get $165 an hour. Progress Michigan’s legal action does not relate to the fees being sought by Schuette.
So far the state has sent Flint $2 million to remove the lead pipes that were corroded when the city switched its drinking water source from Detroit to the Flint River in early 2014. Yet current Mayor Karen Weaver (D) has estimated the project will cost $55 million. The state has also offered residents $30 million in bill relief, but it will only be for a partial credit moving forward and the elimination of debt only related to water that went to drinking, bathing, or cooking.