Investigators and lawyers were lining up some very serious charges against the officials – and the banks – that played a role in the Flint, Michigan water crisis. But suddenly, they decided to scrap those prosecutions once a new, Democratic attorney general came into office. This decision has left Flint residents with little hope of justice, and Ring of Fire’s Farron Cousins discusses this new story with Jordan Chariton of Status Coup News.
*This transcript was generated by a third-party transcription software company, so please excuse any typos.
Farron Cousins: In just a couple years, we’re gonna be coming up on the 10 year anniversary of the Flint water crisis and unfortunately, even eight years out from it, we’re still not seeing the kind of accountability for those responsible that needs to be seen. And according to a phenomenal new report in The Guardian, that may be by design. And I’m joined now by Jordan Chariton the, the co-author of this wonderful new Guardian piece and of course, with Status Coup news, Jordan, thank you for coming back on the program here, man. This is a, a wonderful, terrifying, but wonderful report that you and Charlie LeDuff have put together here.
Jordan Chariton: Yeah. Thanks for, thanks for having me. I’m, you know, obviously I’ve been working on the Flint water crisis and the coverup for many years. There’s not a lot of other journalists still digging on this, so I appreciate you covering this because it’s still a really, really important story.
Farron Cousins: Well, you know, actually, you know, and you just said something there that I was definitely gonna bring up too. Everybody else seems to have moved on from this. You know, if you were to ask most people, I think right now, hey, what’s happening in Flint? Everybody’s gonna think, oh, well obviously we, we solved the problem. You know, people went to jail. We, we’ve seen that governor Snyder, you know, is, is, is facing these criminal charges here. So right. Everything’s good. Well, no, and that is what this report lays out. So let’s start, you know, well, this isn’t the beginning of the crisis, I guess, but let’s go back to the beginning of this individual Dana Nessel. That’s where everything really started to get bad, I would say politically and legally. So start us there.
Jordan Chariton: Yeah. So for those that don’t know, the Flint water investigation, it started in 2016, soon after this became national and, you know, the media rushed Flint. So the, there was an originally an investigation launched in 2016 under, at the time, Republican attorney general Bill Schuette. He was the attorney general of Michigan at the time. Bill Schuette, the Republican, he had appointed a special prosecutor to, to lead the investigation, best way to describe it is just think like a Robert Mueller, but for the Flint water investigation. So that investigation went on for three years, 2016 through the end of 2018, they charged 15 state of Michigan and city of Flint officials with crimes related to the water crisis, everything from involuntary manslaughter to misconduct in office to financial crimes. Then when attorney general Nessel, when she was running for office as a candidate, she did something kind of unusual. She was very publicly criticizing that investigation lead by attorney general, Bill Schuette.
At the time she, you know, she didn’t have, she didn’t have access to any of the evidence obviously. But she called the investigations politically show, politically charged show trials and other things, and really hinted at basically cleaning house if she were to win attorney general. Well, she won the election for attorney general and as promised, when she got into office, she did clean house. She fired that special prosecutor. She fired the chief investigator of, of the investigation who was the head of, former head of the Detroit FBI office, had done serious investigation into the Gambino crime family, into 9/11, had a pretty good resume. So she fired that team. She appointed brand new prosecutors. She kind of started from scratch for reasons that didn’t really make a lot of sense at the time. And what we learned in this investigative report was the investigation and the team that she purged. They were basically, I guess, in football terms like on the five or 10 yard line of filing major financial charges, RICO, which is racketeering charges.
RICO actually was started in the 1970s to go after organized crime mafia. So they were building an aggressive RICO case for financial fraud that the financial fraud that led to the poisoning of Flint, but then when she fired those prosecutors and basically overhauled the investigation, the RICO charges basically died on the vine. She did not with, with the new prosecutors she appointed, she did not follow through on those RICO charges. We also show that separate from the RICO charges that were going to be charged, but then were not charged, she dropped other already filed financial charges against state officials and when she recharged those officials later on, gone were the financial charges. So from, from all of our reporting, it seems like a tale of two investigations and it also seems like for some reason, I, you know, I could give my thoughts, she stopped following the money. And as, as in most things, there was a financial element to this that led to most of the decisions that ended up poisoning the city of Flint.
Farron Cousins: Well, and it seems to me, you know, she says, look, hey, this, they were running this politically motivated investigation. So I’m gonna put an end to that. But it, it actually clearly seems to be the opposite of that. You know, this was a clean investigation from what I can tell, maybe there were some problems with it. There’s problems with everything, no, no doubt. But she comes along and she seems to mainly focus on let’s get Snyder. You know, let’s get this big Republican bad guy who of course is a very bad guy in this situation, but certainly not the only player here. And you’re talking about the, the financial crimes here too and I, I think, yeah, you know, everybody listening or watching this, they, they can draw their own conclusions as to why suddenly, oh, let’s not include the banks. But talk about their role here, because this is something that up to this point even I, and I’ve done my best to try to keep, keep up with all of this, but I had no idea about this whole financial fraud that took place here. So lay that part out for us.
Jordan Chariton: Sure. I’m gonna try to explain this so your viewers’, you know, heads don’t explode, because it is complicated. Basically for 50 years, Flint had received water from Detroit’s water system. Detroit’s water system was actually the third largest water system in the country, at the time Flint switched. So state officials and city of Flint officials had a brilliant idea. Let’s create a brand new water system that goes the same exact pathway, basically parallel to the existing Detroit water system that Flint had received its water from without issue for 50 years. The, the argument that they made was Detroit keeps increasing water prices to the city of Flint. So if we create our own water system that we control, rates will go down for the residents. That’s the stated reason that they gave. Okay. So to that water system was called the Karegnondi Water Authority, KWA.
The problem was in 2014, it was not built yet, this brand new water system that they wanted Flint to join, Flint was broke. Like Detroit was actually bankrupt, Flint was nearly bankrupt. Flint did not have a credit rating and it had already reached its borrowing limit, the state ordered borrowing limit. So the only way that Flint would be able to borrow more money, because it, it had already reached its borrowing limit, was if there was some type of environmental emergency. That would allow an exception to allow Flint to borrow more money, to then join this brand new water system. So the state officials, city officials, some others, they came up with a quote, environmental emergency, to clean, that Flint urgently needed to clean up some lime pit, a lime sludge lagoon in Flint. But the emergency order that they created for that quote unquote emergency, they snuck in the KWA pipeline so that they, that emergency order allowed Flint to borrow 80, again, a broke city to borrow $85 million under the guise of this, we need to clean up this little lagoon.
But in fact, the $85 million went for Flint to join this brand new water pipeline, that Flint would, the $85 million would go towards Flint’s portion of the pipeline, Flint, Flint’s portion of construction because the pipeline needed to be constructed. So that was the alleged fraud, Flint, it, it was under false pretenses that Flint was able to borrow that money and that the whole bond deal because Flint issued $85 million worth of bonds, government issued bonds, it was under false pretenses. JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo, so we’re talking big boys on Wall Street here, they underwrote the bonds. So they issued the bonds along with a third financial form, firm. So, based on our sources, if those RICO charges had gone forward in criminal court, RICO is racketeering. So typically it’s for bribery, racketeering, false pretenses, corrupt transactions. If those RICO charges had gone forward in court, the state of Michigan faced the potential of hundreds of millions of dollars in liability, because it was a state of Michigan that ultimately signed off on that environmental emergency that triggered the bond deal.
In addition to the state of Michigan, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo, so Wall Street banks, they too faced hundreds of millions of dollars in liability because as the issuer of the bonds, they, our sources indicate they had a, they failed to do their due diligence to ensure that while that brand new water system was being built and Flint was on the Flint river, that the Flint water plant, the Flint water treatment plant, basically was equipped to treat the water. The truth was, and the, the state officials and city officials knew this, the Flint water plant needed upwards of $61 million in upgrades before they switched to the Flint river in order to treat the water. The problem was they did not make those upgrades at the time that they switched to the Flint river. So essentially in a nutshell for your viewers, you had, basically a scam emergency order created that allowed Flint, a broke city, to borrow $85 million to join frankly, a completely unnecessary new water system and that completely unnecessary water system did not lower rates for the residents of Flint, but it made a lot of landowners richer. It made banks richer and of course investors wealthier.
Farron Cousins: So here we are 2022, you know, basically almost eight years since the switch happened, almost six years since the story was revealed to the public and, and we’re, we’re still finding out all of this, you know, kind of new pieces of this scandal. So this goes far beyond just knowing, hey, if we, if we take water from the Flint river, our pipes are so corroded, it’s gonna cause leaching, people are gonna get lead poisoning. Right? That’s the part everybody knows about and everybody, you know, at this point probably thinks that, oh, everything’s totally cool over there. But there’s so many more moving parts as, as you’ve explained, you know, in, in this, in this article, it makes me wonder what else is out there?
You know, how much could we still potentially not know at this point when we’ve already been six years and we’re still finding out, you know, the, the financial aspect of this, the, you know, emergency order that was totally fake. It’s just remarkable that, that all of this has gone unnoticed and I think it mostly is a testament to the state of journalism here in the United States. I mean, you’ve done a phenomenal job. You have stayed on this story, you know, from the very beginning and it’s because of that, that we know this. But everybody else is, like I said, they’ve, they’ve moved on. They don’t seem to care. And there’s clearly a lot of digging that still needed to be done and, and you went out there and you did the digging and that’s how we know this stuff today.
Jordan Chariton: Well, I’ll tell you, I mean, just as a human, it’s really disheartening. In the last two years, I’ve broken four major stories on Flint, all in, you know, pretty big outlets, Vice, The Intercept and now The Guardian, my outlet is Status Coup, but, you know, we obviously, we tried to get these in bigger outlets. And what’s remarkable is, you know, I’ve exposed, let’s talk about these two investigations for example. The original investigation in before the current Democratic AG came in, they were gunning for involuntary manslaughter against governor Snyder. They weren’t ready to charge, to be clear, but my sources, Charlie’s sources, and another reporter confirmed that original investigation that the current attorney general basically purged, they were building a case against governor Snyder for involuntary manslaughter for his role in this coverup. I exposed that governor Snyder, he knew about the toxic water 16 months earlier than he told the public.
Then he told Flint. And 16 months earlier then he claimed that he knew to Congress. I believe perjury is still a crime in America. So I exposed that the governor knew full well basically a year and a half earlier while people were still drinking this toxic water, which by the way, was not just lead. There was bacteria in the water and other toxic chemicals. We exposed that the governor’s top advisor, basically think of like his consigliere, was going around offering payoffs to sick Flint residents to keep them quiet. Supposedly the governor didn’t know about this, from his top advisor was going around offering payoffs. We exposed, about seven, eight months ago that the governor’s top officials, including his press secretary, that their phones were conveniently erased shortly before the launch of the Flint criminal investigation, text messages were missing on top officials phones for the entire 18 month period that Flint was on the Flint river.
I mean, this is, in my view, one of the biggest coverups that we have proved of this century. Honestly to me, if Watergate didn’t have a president, I mean, nobody died from Watergate. People died from this and are still dying. People are slowly dying, because they’re getting sicker because lead poisoning, it takes years and years for the full effects to sink in. So we’ve exposed systematically all these things, but each time we expose it, yeah, I can’t get the media to cover it. I think it’s been a mixture of the five year Trump circus. I think it’s been a mixture of frankly, our media is heavily concentrated in New York, DC, the West Coast. And for lack of a, you know, I hate to say it, most of these people don’t give the about the poisoned people of Flint. It’s kind of outta sight of, outta sight outta mind.
Why I have stayed on it is very simple to me and I’ve been there nearly 20 times, in large part because of Status Coup viewers funding us as, as paying members. To me, why it’s important. This is not just about the city of Flint. It’s not. I mean, of course the residents are, are top of mind. But this is about, you know, basically an American, American city being poisoned by its government. Then that government covering it up. Then the media helping the government cover it up. And then the government basically leaving the citizens to slowly die. That’s what’s going on. I, I, I don’t mean to dramatize it, but that is what’s going on. People are slowly dying every year. Sources, residents that I’ve become friendly with, they’re, they’re getting sick, cancers that they’ve had no family history of and these are people in their thirties and forties, not like sixties or seventies.
People are dying and it’s basically going into like a media cave aside from a few independent folks like you who give a to cover it. And my questions for the attorney general and no Michigan media will dare to ask, I don’t care if she’s a Republican, Democrat, doesn’t matter to me. Bottom line, how is it that one investigation for three years that you cleaned house, you fired the, the special prosecutor, the top investigators, you claimed it was, they were political. How is it that they were gunning for involuntary manslaughter, which has been confirmed by other reporters, you ended up charging the governor with a misdemeanor? They were, they were building a case for involuntary manslaughter. That’s a pretty wide discrepancy between two investigations. How is it that that original investigation had already charged state officials with financial fraud, which we already talked about what the fraud was.
And then when, when attorney general Nessel came in, she appointed prosecutors, they dropped those financial fraud charges against those officials. And how is it that one investigation from our reporting was building a racketeering case, which is pretty much as high as you could go in terms of financial charges, RICO. Again, they used it against organized crime mafia. How is it they were building that case, but when you come in that case slowly dies on the, dies on the vine? The attorney general of Michigan, frankly, she’s had a technique, Dana Nessel, every time I break a story, she starts flooding, she goes on MSNBC, CNN about other things to try and kind of distract from that story. Right now she’s doing TV interviews about, I guess, Dana Nessel, the attorney general referred, you know, these Republican officials who allegedly forged documents about the election.
So she’s been going on MSNBC and other channels the last few days conveniently, once this story broke, in my view to kind of distract. So the people of Flint deserve answers. And again, you know, just think about it. If, if you think it’s just about Flint, it’s not, because I, I promise you, unfortunately to your viewers, if no one is actually held accountable, I’m, I’m talking for financial crimes, for other crimes. What makes you think mayors, city councils, governors, banks, and other, in other cities, what makes you think they’re gonna blink twice in the, in their decision making process? Maybe it’s about water. Maybe it’s about other things. If nobody is held accountable in Flint. So that’s why I’m so passionate about it. That’s why I stay on it. And this story very clearly shows that there was, original investigators were about to throw the book at state officials for financial fraud that led to the poisoning of the city and this investigation and this attorney general and her team, by all appearances, unless they have an answer, let it go.
Farron Cousins: You know, it, it, it is truly sick that this is happening and I agree with you. You know, if, if we think Flint, Michigan is the only Flint, Michigan out there, we’re kidding ourselves. I mean, we already know how poor America’s entire water infrastructure is. I mean, there’s already, you know, the report that came out shortly after this story broke, you know, years and years ago, two to 3000 other areas in the country where the water is actually worse than Flint, Michigan, a, a massive report there. And that’s not necessarily to say that all 3000 of those are because of government coverups. But you can’t tell me that out of 3000 other cases, nope, nobody knew. It was such a shock, you know, when the reporters revealed this. No. They know, media doesn’t seem to care.
Like you said, they would rather cover, hey, come on the show and talk about these, you know, a couple of weirdos who submitted a fake document that, okay. Yeah, sure. I, I get it. Prosecute ’em, wonderful. That doesn’t warrant this kind of coverage. Again, these were just nut people who went out there and wrote a document and sent it in and good, you caught ’em. People died from this story. People are still dying from this story. They’re dying, slow and painful deaths and the media has totally turned away from it and unfortunately the public has as well. And that’s the other part, the public has to care about this and, and like you said, you need to care about it because even if you don’t live in Flint, if you think this couldn’t happen to you, you’re definitely kidding yourself right now.
Jordan Chariton: Absolutely. And I’ll tell you, Farron. I mean, dropping the curtain here. I can’t tell you how many times I pitched, I mean, we had the goods, we, we had the reporting, we obtained documents, the whole nine. And I reached out to some pretty big outlets and you know what they said to me, is there a connection to Trump?
Farron Cousins: Jesus.
Jordan Chariton: Um, I mean, I’m, I’m telling you some really big outlets. Is there connection to Trump? I’ve, Michigan media in particularly, this is the whole thing, you know, channels like yours, channels like mine we, we rightly take on the national media. The local media across the country is just as culpable in covering these things up. Literally the Detroit free press, the Detroit news, the Flint journal, which is Flint’s hometown paper had, have ignored all of the stories that I’ve just gone through. The fact that we broke Snyder knew 16 months earlier about the deadly Legionnaire’s bacteria that was spreading through Flint’s water, deadly waterborne bacteria. They didn’t cover it.
The fact that Snyder’s right hand man was going around Flint, paying off sick residents. They didn’t cover it. If I, if I eventually do a book, I’ll release all the emails with these editors, the reasons they give are preposterous. So you have, you know, I try not to get conspiratorial, but at a certain point you have to ask yourself, you know, I didn’t go to a prestigious journalism school, but I’m pretty sure if you have documents that could back things up, if you have good sources, typically other outlets might want to report on those things, particularly in, in the area where it’s happening, Detroit, Flint, you know, et cetera. They will, they basically won’t cover it and I’ve literally heard from people from those outlets that left, yeah, look at their advertisers. Because there’s really been a, a push to basic, basically, declare the water crisis over, to sweep it under the rug in part because a water crisis isn’t particularly good for gentrification efforts in Flint.
You know, Flint like many major cities, there are real estate developers, major donors that are heavily, heavily focused on make, you know, gentrifying downtown. Putting in beautiful restaurants, cultural centers, bars, shopping districts. Well, if you have a water crisis and the water’s not safe, not so easy to get investors to come in to gentrify that city. So the, the last mayor of Flint told me on the record that she was getting pressured from donors, from real estate developers in Flint, to publicly say, yeah, yeah, the water’s fine now, when she wouldn’t do it, because the water wasn’t fine. So this kind of stuff it’s happening in Flint, it’s happening in other places. And let’s also add, you know, I don’t wanna let the Democrats off the hook here either. This happened under a Republican governor. He is, you know, in my view first and foremost to blame, because he could have notified the residents much, much earlier. In a, if he did that, he might have been viewed as a hero for saving lives.
But president Obama was the president. President Obama, a lot of people don’t know this, he would not issue a state of, a disaster declaration, which is different than a state of emergency. A disaster declaration ushers in more federal funds. It could send the Army Corps of Engineers to the city and he wouldn’t do that because technically a disaster declaration is only for, you know, hurricanes or, you know, massive storms, things like that, not this kind of situation. But that failure for Obama to declare it a disaster prevented at, at a crucial time, a significant amount of money that needed to go to Flint to dig up those pipes. We’re, we’re eight years into this, all of the pipes have not been changed yet. Okay. They haven’t even touched the interior plumbing in people’s homes. They’ve only been replacing the pipes from your curb into your home. They haven’t touched people’s busted interior plumbing or the main pipes underneath the street.
So, yeah, there’s been this narrative that this is solved and this is over and as a journalist, it’s really frustrating and maddening because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to Flint. I’ve covered these things. I’ve spoken with residents. I’ve literally been on front porches listening to kids who can no longer recite the alphabet or can no longer count to 10. I’ve spoken with adults who are in their thirties that frankly, through their illnesses from that water now are health wise are closer to their sixties and seventies. It, I mean, I think as a human I’d be kind of a sociopath if, if this didn’t affect me. But I, I see this going on there and then I turn on the TV and for a long time it was what, what is Trump tweeted or Russia, Russia. And, and, you know, I’m not saying Trump wasn’t important or these other things were important, but there’s a real abdication of walking and chewing gum. And frankly I’ve been told by mainstream news editors that frankly for the investment that would go into working with me on, on Flint, they don’t think there would be a major bang for the buck in terms of interest, meaning clicks, revenue, profit. And that’s just, that’s a really sad commentary on where we’re at in our media.
Farron Cousins: It, it, it truly is. So let us know, tell us right now, how people can support you and your work. Where, where do they need to go? What can they do?
Jordan Chariton: I appreciate that. So obviously like this story was in The Guardian, this previous stories were in The Intercept and Vice, I appreciate those outlets for publishing it. But to be clear, we would, I would never have broken these stories if not for Status Coup and we’re on YouTube, that’s Status C O U P. This is another conversation, but YouTube is really suppressing us, unfortunately. So a lot of people, even our subscribers don’t always see our content. So, you know, I, I encourage your viewers go to Status Coup on YouTube, C O U P, click the bell for all notifications, because Status Coup and our paying members, they are the ones that have funded my repeated trips to Flint. You know, you don’t just like break these stories, like getting information through facts. You have to like do on the ground investigative reporting, build relationships, build sources.
So definitely people should go to Status Coup on YouTube. That’s Status C O U P, subscribe. Obviously we cover Flint. We also, we also cover a lot of other issues. Union drives, worker strikes other communities with environmental issues. We try to cover basically what the corporate media covers up. So I’d really encourage people, Status Coup, subscribe and, you know, if you wanna support our on the ground journalism, which I could tell you is very pricey for me, a cameraman to go to places like Flint and elsewhere, you could become a paying member for $5 a month and that’s statuscoup.com/join.
Farron Cousins: And, and again, everybody understand, you know, this is real investigative journalism. It’s what we have been talking about on Ring a Fire for almost 18 years is sorely lacking and missing in this country. So everybody who’s been with us since the beginning there, you know how seriously we do take this issue of the, the death of American journalism. Well, Jordan, Status Coup, this is the real deal. So, I encourage you to subscribe. If you’re able to help, help out, because this is too important to ignore. So, Jordan, thank you very much, not just for all your work, but for being here with us today.
Jordan Chariton: Yes. Thank you so much for having me. I, I really appreciate it because frankly, we need more independent media to, to boost actual independent journalism. So I, I thank you for your continued interest in this story.
Farron Cousins: Oh, anytime. Thank you.