Rick Snyder

Hillary’s Flint Gambit

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As I’ve noted repeatedly, when independent tests first publicized that decisions made by Governor Snyder’s hand-picked Emergency Manager were poisoning Flint’s children last October, he made a show of response, but it wasn’t until the Task Force he appointed laid into his Department of Environmental Quality and Detroit’s US Attorney revealed it was investigating the problem that Snyder ratcheted up his effort to appear to be responding.

But his actions since then have largely been an attempt to stall for time, presumably a hope that anti-corrosives in Flint’s pipes will bring lead levels down so that we can all move on and forget about it. True, he did get the state legislature to cough up $28 million, which will go to ramping up state agency involvement. He has asked for $30 million to alleviate some, but not all, of Flint residents water bills so they’re not paying for water they can’t use, but it’s not clear the legislature will fund it (and it’s just partial relief in any case).

But at the same time, he has asked for bigger funding chunks from the Federal government: $96 million under disaster funding for things including replacing a fraction of the lead pipes in the city, and the expansion of funding for WIC funding for Flint’s children until they’re 10 (which would have improved nutritional support for kids at risk of lead poisoning). The Feds denied both those requests. Snyder and the Republicans are now blaming Obama for denying these requests. Understand: Obama’s administration could only had approved them by violating the terms of these programs set by Congress. Snyder asked for something that, under the law, Obama could not give, and now Snyder is using that denial to try to pawn off responsibility onto Obama, rather than the appointed managers who created this mess and ignored it for over a year.

That leaves the lead pipes in the ground, still leaching toxic levels of lead four months after anti-corrosives were first added to the water to try to reverse the corrosion. Some houses in Flint still have so much lead in the water that filters cannot be trusted to remove the poison.

Michigan’s Senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, tried to get $600 million added to a bipartisan energy bill to start the work of actually replacing those pipes. But even revising that request down to $200 million didn’t work, so Democrats filibustered the bill.

That was Thursday.

Hours later, during the debate, Hillary announced she’d do an appearance in Flint today, which ended a few hours ago.

I will be in Flint at the Mayor’s invitation on Sunday to get an in depth briefing about what is, and is not happening.

This is an emergency. Everyday that goes by that these people, particularly the children, are not tested so we can know what steps must be taken to try to remediate the effects of the poisoning that they have been living with is a day lost in a child’s life. I know from the work that I’ve done over so many years, lead, the toxic nature of lead can affect you brain development, your body development, your behavior.

I absolutely believe that what is being done is not sufficient. We need to be absolutely clear about everything that should be done from today to tomorrow, into the future to try to remedy the terrible burden that the people of Flint are bearing. That includes fixing their pipes, it includes guaranteeing whatever healthcare and educational embellishments they may need going forward, and I think the federal government has way where it can bill the state of Michigan. If Michigan won’t do it, there have to be ways that we can begin to move, and then make them pay for it, and hold them accountable.

Her appearance (which drew no national coverage) had some strong points: She reminded she had worked on lead (paint) issues in New York, she noted that many other cities are suffering from similar problems, she called to get Flint people working to replace the pipes.

She brought up the $200 million Democratic Senators are currently demanding.

Therein lies the rub.

I’m completely agnostic about whether this particular trip will hurt or help (it’s very clear that Hillary’s focus on Flint two debates ago helped draw attention, though of course that came months after the lead poisoning was first revealed in October).

It could be that next week Democrats in the Senate will be able to get Republicans to relent to their demand for Flint funding. But it could also be that Republicans will dig in, given that denying Flint funding becomes a way to deprive the presumptive Democratic nominee a win. That’s true, especially since John Cornyn already accused Democrats of trying to embarrass Republicans on this issue.

Republican Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas called the Democrats’ sudden rejection of what had been bipartisan support for the energy bill “gamesmanship” and an effort to “embarrass Republicans” by making it seem they did not care about Flint.

He said state officials are trying to figure out how much a full infrastructure repair program in the city might cost — an estimate is expected next week — and to authorize full funding before that was “putting the cart before the horse.”

“The State of Michigan and the City of Flint don’t know what they need to do to fix the problem or how much it will cost,” Cornyn said. “The senators form Michigan come in here and say we don’t need to know … we want cash.”

It seems Republicans are stalling, hoping this will fade from view before some Republican legislature — either Federal or state — ends up funding a needed infrastructure program which will not only fix the water problem, but provide a Keynesian boost to a city Republicans would like to cure with more austerity. As months go on, this year’s Presidential and next year’s gubernatorial election will exert pressure of some sort. It may well be that Hillary can use her focus on Flint to showcase a call for more infrastructure funding that will tip some elections. It may also be that the prospect of Hillary on the ballot in November exerts pressure downticket on Republicans.

But for the moment, this seems like uncertain political gamesmanship that could leave Flint residents drinking from plastic bottles for months to come.

Update: I meant to include this quote from a Flint resident, which encapsulates my concern.

“It’s bad news to me,” said Arthur Woodson, a 46-year-old Army veteran who runs New Beginnings, a Flint-based nonprofit aimed at helping soldiers return to the community. “She’s turning it into a political football. The GOP won’t ever do anything now. They’re going to turn it into a partisan thing.”

“This is a water issue,” he continued. “It’s not a political issue. We got kids who are suffering. We don’t have time for this partisan stuff.”

Update: MI Republican Chair and Mitt Romney niece Ronna Romney McDaniel is out complaining about this “calculated campaign tactic.”

Families and residents in Flint deserve better than being used as political pawns by a Presidential candidate. This visit is not an act of benevolence; it is a calculated campaign tactic – an attempt to grab headlines by a struggling campaign.

It is time to focus on solutions. As a candidate who proclaimed that the enemies she is most proud of are Republicans, I doubt that Hillary Clinton is here to contribute to the bipartisan effort to fix this crisis. The families in Flint deserve solutions, not a stunt that does nothing to help the city or the people who call it home.

Flint Crisis: Harvey Hollins Not Giving Task Force Information that Implicates Harvey Hollins

Some weeks ago, I noted that Rick Snyder had picked his Director of Urban Initiatives, Harvey Hollins, to coordinate response with his hand-picked Task Force to respond to Flint, in spite of the fact that Hollins was intimately involved in all his prior decisions involving Flint.

First, back in early December, Snyder’s hand-picked Task Force for responding to the Flint crisis met with him to tell him of their initial observations. One of their key recommendations, as made clear by a meeting summary they shared with him, was that he appoint one single person to handle the response. (See PDF 240ff)

We also believe it important that a single person or entity-potentially independent of any one particular state agency and mutually agreeable to this Task Force and you, Governor-be established to provide effective coordination of ongoing activities and reporting on thestatus of mitigation measures.

[snip]

Accordingly, in advance of our final report, we would like to ensure the independentcoordinator suggest ed above engage trusted community groups to beginrebuildincommunity trust in state actions.

Snyder responded by “appointing” Harvey Hollins, his Director of Urban Initiatives, as that person “independent” of the “involved state agencies.”

You make a solid suggestion about establishing a person who is independent of any one of the involved state agencies to serve as the point person to coordinate t he ongoing work. I am recommending that Harvey Hollins, director of the Office of Urban Initiatives,carry out this effort. Harvey Is wellversed in the issues and the challenges faced by ourcities and will be effective in this role. Senior members of our executive team willcontinue to engage with your task force and provide direction and support to Harvey to ensure you will have continued support and cooperation.

The thing is, Hollins was in no way “independent” of the decisions that poisoned Flint. He has been involved at every phase, down to coordinating Snyder’s hush-hush water filters when he was still trying to cover it up. So basically Snyder just “appointed” the guy he had “appointed” to oversee all the decisions that got Flint poisoned in the first place.

The other day, Progress Michigan revealed that MI’s Department of Environmental Quality had alerted Hollins of concerns that the Legionnaires outbreak in Flint might be tied to the water switchover last March.

In the next few days, officials at DEQ exchanged some panicked emails, pretty much blaming Flint for the non-response, noting that DEQ “became peripherally aware” of the spike in Legionnaires, but also bitching about the Genesee County supervisor suggesting that it might be tied to the switch to Flint river water.

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It appears that panicked email was printed out by then DEQ Director Dan Wyant’s assistant, Mary Beth Thelen, then initialed by Wyant, presumably indicating he had read it.

Also included on that email, though, was Harvey Hollins.

Yesterday, the Free Press reported that, in an interview, Hollins had explained that he had decided there was not yet enough information to brief the Governor on the public health crisis potentially tied to the water.

Harvey Hollins III, director of Michigan’s Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives, said in an interview Friday that he received an e-mail from a Department of Environmental Quality official in March about concerns over Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County. But Hollins said he told the e-mail’s author, former DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel, in a follow-up call, that there was not enough information for him to take the issue to the governor.

Instead, Hollins said he told Wurfel to gather more information and have the department’s director bring it directly to the governor if it was warranted. Hollins said he heard nothing more about the issue until late December when local officials in Flint revealed the outbreak had recurred.

Hollins said he should not be held responsible for what some have called the state’s sluggish response to the Legionnaires’ outbreaks starting in 2014. The outbreaks and the city’s 2014 switch to the Flint River for its drinking water are suspected of being linked, but state officials said they have yet to make a direct connection.

“I have nothing to leave over,”  Hollins  said when asked whether he considered resigning over the issue. “When you have people who are professionals who are hired … to do their job and it takes four months to do that, for me to leave over their missteps, I’m not going to do that,”

“I don’t feel any responsibility for grown-ups who don’t do their jobs,” he added.

It’s unclear whether the Freep asked Hollins if he felt any responsibility for the 9 people who died in this Legionnaires outbreak.

Also yesterday, one of the doctors on the Task Force with which Hollins is supposed to be coordinating communication said that it is having problems getting information — notably, on the Legionnaires outbreak — from state agencies.

“Unfortunately, first on the list is the legionella issue,” said Reynolds of Mott Children’s Health Center, referencing spikes in the fatal Legionnaires’ disease after the city began using Flint River water in April 2014.

“Some agencies have been very forthcoming, other agencies it’s like pulling teeth to get information, and it can get real frustrating and doesn’t facilitate good communication,” he said.

Reynolds, who serves on the task force, raised his concern during a meeting of the Flint Interagency Coordinating Committee attended by Snyder and top aide Rich Baird, who vowed to help Reynolds push through any bureaucratic resistance.

[snip]

The Flint task force has been working to wrap up its investigation this month, but Reynolds said members may need to reinterview some officials because of recent developments.

“If we don’t ask the question, we don’t get the answer,” he said. “But there’s clearly information that’s being withheld.”

How curious that Hollins doesn’t seem to be terribly effective at getting the Task Force the information it needs about events that implicate Hollins.

DEQ Employees Seem Unwilling to Take the Fall for Flint

During yesterday’s Congressional hearing — and really, since the Governor’s hand-picked Task Force first gave him an interim report in December — employees from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality have come in for most of the blame for poisoning Flint.

But today, Progress Michigan published some emails that suggest DEQ’s employees are unwilling to take the fall, at least not by themselves. They show that in March of last year, a supervisor in Gennesee County’s health department wrote people in Flint and at DEQ asking for help with data on water quality after getting no response to a FOIA in January 2015.

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In the email, the supervisor noted that a spike in Legionnaires coincided with the switch to Flint’s water. Jerry Ambrose was then the Emergency Manager of Flint; it’s unclear why he was using a GMail address as EM.

In the next few days, officials at DEQ exchanged some panicked emails, pretty much blaming Flint for the non-response, noting that DEQ “became peripherally aware” of the spike in Legionnaires, but also bitching about the Genesee County supervisor suggesting that it might be tied to the switch to Flint river water.

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It appears that panicked email was printed out by then DEQ Director Dan Wyant’s assistant, Mary Beth Thelen, then initialed by Wyant, presumably indicating he had read it.

Also included on that email, though, was Harvey Hollins.

As I noted here, in December, in response to a recommendation from Governor Snyder’s hand-picked Flint Task Force, the governor picked Hollins to be the single “independent” person overseeing response to the Flint crisis. It was absurd to pick him in the first place, because (as this shows) Hollins had been personally involved all along. But he is, at least on paper, in charge of response.

In other words, the email chain shows that both Snyder’s hand-picked EM and the guy in charge of liaising with Flint knew, over a year ago, that Legionnaires (which has since killed at least 9 people) might be tied to the water switchover.

Progress Michigan doesn’t note how they came by this email. But it’s pretty clear it was Wyant’s personal copy of it. In December — in response to another suggestion by the Task Force — Snyder had Wyant resign. Since then, Attorney General Bill Schuette pointed to Wyant’s resignation (which he originally expressed sadness about) to justify opening up his own investigation into the crisis.

All of which suggests to me that Wyant is unwilling to be the sole scapegoat for this crisis.

Why Is the Postal Inspection Service Investigating the Flint Water Crisis?

I hope to have a further update about the ongoing effort to bury the Flint water crisis before the Oversight and Government Reform hearing on Wednesday morning.

But in the meantime I wanted to point to this passage, helpfully dropped out of the US Attorney’s investigation in Detroit:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Tuesday it was joining a criminal investigation of lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, exploring whether laws were broken in a crisis that has captured international attention.

Federal prosecutors in Michigan were working with an investigative team that included the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General and the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit said.

An FBI spokeswoman said the agency was determining whether federal laws were broken, but declined further comment.

I’m actually not at all surprised FBI is involved in this investigation. That sort of comes with the territory of a US Attorney investigation, it seems.

But the US Postal Inspection Service? Here’s the kind of crime they investigate:

Report these issues to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service online:

  • Mail fraud May include scams or deceptive ads via the mail, or postage fraud.
  • Mail theft Under Inquiry Type, select Problem. Under Customer Service, select Support, and Mail Theft. Under Additional Information, explain why your complaint is mail theft-related.
  • Identity theft
  • Unsolicited Sexually Oriented Advertising

If you believe you’re a victim of fraud related to the U.S. Mail, including mailed sweepstakes, lotteries, on-line auctions, work-at-home scams or chain letters, report your concern to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service as mail fraud.

They often get brought in as an investigative partner if the government needs to track what has been mailed, and mail fraud charges can serve as hand add-on charges in cases where someone used the mail to help commit a crime.

I can imagine a lot of things the FBI might be investigating. But I know of no facts, thus far, that involve mail-related crimes.

Harvey Hollins Is Supposed to Be Leading Flint Response but Snyder Sent Richard Baird Instead

In my posts on Flint, I’ve alluded to a guy named Rich Baird, whom Governor Rick Snyder calls his “Transformation Manager.”

This morning, the Detroit News reported Snyder is sending Baird to oversee his Flint response.

The governor is dispatching his fixer and confidant, Rich Baird, to Flint to help coordinate the state response and to reassure the city’s elected leaders of direct, daily contact with the governor’s office.

Eclectablog has written several important posts on who Baird is and, importantly, how he was originally funded.

Baird, who had recently retired from PricewaterhouseCoopers, set up a consulting firm called MI Partners and took on one client: Governor Rick Snyder. He makes $100,000 year, paid for by unknown donors to the NERD fund, and sits at the right hand of the governor. His office is literally in the governor’s executive office suite. If you look at the Executive Office directory (pdf), there is Richard Baird’s name, listed along with the normal staffers paid like most other government officials with taxpayer money:

The important point though is that Baird, who has been a critical figure in Snyder’s emergency management schemes, started as a public/private fixer, working for private entities we can’t know about. In advance of the reelection campaign, at a time when people were demanding to know who had been paying Baird’s salary, Baird was brought onto state payroll. But he is a key figure in Snyder’s corporate driven effort to loot Michigan.

There are two reasons I’m interested in the report that Baird is overseeing Snyder’s response.

First, back in early December, Snyder’s hand-picked Task Force for responding to the Flint crisis met with him to tell him of their initial observations. One of their key recommendations, as made clear by a meeting summary they shared with him, was that he appoint one single person to handle the response. (See PDF 240ff)

We also believe it important that a single person or entity-potentially independent of any one particular state agency and mutually agreeable to this Task Force and you, Governor-be established to provide effective coordination of ongoing activities and reporting on the status of mitigation measures.

[snip]

Accordingly, in advance of our final report, we would like to ensure the independent coordinator suggest ed above engage trusted community groups to begin rebuildincommunity trust in state actions.

Snyder responded by “appointing” Harvey Hollins, his Director of Urban Initiatives, as that person “independent” of the “involved state agencies.”

You make a solid suggestion about establishing a person who is independent of any one of the involved state agencies to serve as the point person to coordinate t he ongoing work. I am recommending that Harvey Hollins, director of the Office of Urban Initiatives, carry out this effort. Harvey Is wellversed in the issues and the challenges faced by our cities and will be effective in this role. Senior members of our executive team will continue to engage with your task force and provide direction and support to Harvey to ensure you will have continued support and cooperation.

The thing is, Hollins was in no way “independent” of the decisions that poisoned Flint. He has been involved at every phase, down to coordinating Snyder’s hush-hush water filters when he was still trying to cover it up. So basically Snyder just “appointed” the guy he had “appointed” to oversee all the decisions that got Flint poisoned in the first place.

But now he’s putting (or the press is reporting that he already did put) someone else — Baird — in charge of his response.

Which brings us to what Snyder’s emails show about the involvement of Baird.

Now, I hope to get around to posting evidence from his released emails that Snyder has a second email account, and that much of what we see in the released emails are efforts to keep certain things off the books (not just in that second account but in phone or face-to-face conversations). So — as MotorCity Muckraker pointed out — it’s perhaps not surprising that Baird doesn’t appear to send Snyder many emails (on this account) but it is notable.

When he does appear in emails is interesting, however.

Baird appears in emails forwarded with public announcements relating to Flint in 2014.

  • PDF 5: January 15, 2014: Public announcement of federal funding
  • PDF 26: April 30, 2014: Flint EM’s budget talking points

Then Baird didn’t show up in emails again until the shit started hitting the fan in October 2015. It’s quite clear from these emails that Baird had a key role in responding to this crisis, including as the go-between with the Task Force Snyder set up to make the whole problem go away.

  • PDF 110: October 06, 2014: Public distribution of water filters
  • PDF 217: November 17, 2015: DEQ’s (significantly misleading) self-report to Snyder’s Task Force
  • PDF 240: December 7, 2015: Task Force (Ken Sikkema)’s formal conveyance of its report to Snyder
  • PDF 243: December 10, 2015: Response to Task Force, reflecting input from Baird
  • PDF 246: December 11, 2015: DHHS testing data
  • PDF 250: December 24, 2015: Office of Auditor General response to State Senator Jim Ananich
  • PDF 252: December 28, 2015: DEQ concurring in OAG’s analysis
  • PDF 269: December 28, 2015: Response to pre-shared copy of Task Force report, reflecting conference call involving Baird, noting a phone call to follow
  • PDF: December 29, 2015: Snyder’s statement about Task Force response, with note that Baird would meet face-to-face with Task Force on follow-up

By late December, it’s clear the governor’s staff was avoiding putting certain things in writing. In some key moments, in fact, Baird was involved in conversations about the response.

None of this is surprising. But it does make it clear that Snyder’s real response here is being led by his public-private fixer.

Bill Schuette’s Bogus Excuse for His Belated Investigation into Flint

This morning, Michigan’s Attorney General and aspiring gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette appointed a lawyer who has donated $10,200 to his own state-wide elections and chunks more to other Republicans (as well as a smaller donation to Jennifer Granholm in 2005) to lead the “state” investigation into Flint (this is, of course, an investigation carried out by two private citizens granted the authority of the state, not the state itself — yet more private contractors who will make money off the screw-ups of Snyder’s emergency managers).

Just as interesting as the financial ties Todd Flood has with the Republican party is the excuse Schuette gave for all of a sudden deciding he needed to conduct an investigation just after the story leaked on January 5 that Detroit’s US Attorney, Barb McQuade, is investigating. Schuette said he decided to act in the wake of some resignations from staffers from the Department of Environmental Quality.

Initially Schuette had declined to investigate the Flint water crisis, but said that in early January new information including the resignation of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials had changed his mind.

This claim suggests some pretty whacky timing. The DEQ employees who had resigned by the time Schuette announced his investigation on January 15 were DEQ Director Dan Wyant and Spokesperson Brad Wurfel (Snyder subsequently announced the suspension of two unnamed DEQ employees on January 22).

But Schuette sure as hell didn’t sound like he thought Wyant’s resignation merited an investigation on December 29, when he released this statement.

I am saddened to hear of the resignation of Department of Environment Quality Director Dan Wyant. In my 20-plus years of knowing him, Dan has been a hardworking, dedicated public servant. I am committed to working with all parties, including the legislature and Governor, to ensure the public’s health and the well being of Michigan residents.

On the contrary, Schuette sounded like it was a terrible thing that those mean poisoned Flint kids brought about a career setback for his buddy.

Moreover, the emails Snyder released make it clear that the “resignations” and “suspensions” of these DEQ fall guys was very closely orchestrated.

The day before the governor’s Task Force on Water (directed by a GOP partisan but including the leader of an environmental group and some health academics) formally delivered an interim report to Snyder, December 28, someone sent an advance copy to the governor. (See PDF 269 for the advance copy and discussion that followed, and PDF 265 for the formal conveyance of the report to the governor.) Snyder’s Chief of Staff, Jarrod Agen, his legal counsel, James Redford, his Director of Urban Initiatives, Harvey Hollins (who was involved in the Flint issues throughout, and whom Snyder laughably appointed as the “independent” person to oversee the Flint response in December), his privately-paid bully “Transformation Manager” Richard Baird, and his Communications Director Meegan Holland had a conference call to figure out how to respond. Agen’s email to Snyder makes it clear that before that call, there had already been a plan to make “structural changes” at DEQ.

Attached is a letter from the Flint Water Task Force which will be formally sent to you tomorrow. The Task Force then plans to release this letter publicly on Wednesday morning.

You will see the letter is harsh against DEQ.

Rich, Redford, Harvey, Meegan, and myself all just gathered on a conference call to discuss our upcoming actions regarding Flint. While we don’t think this letter should change any of our actions, we agreed we may need to accelerate some of the structural changes at DEQ.

Our suggestions:

1) Make structural changes at DEQ as early as tomorrow: The recommendations in this letter suggest profound change at DEQ and openly criticize Director Wyant. If this is the path that the Task Force is on, it is best to make changes at DEQ sooner rather than later. That likely means accepting Dan’s resignation. It also means moving up the termination of the 3 DEQ personal previously planned for Jan 4 to tomorrow.

His notes also make it clear that there was already a plan to terminate 3 other DEQ personnel on January 4 (which presumably would be Wurfel and the two staffers who got suspended on January 22).

There’s no indication that Schuette was involved in these discussions (though given that he was already defending Snyder in multiple lawsuits, you would think he was in communication with Redford).

Still, it’s quite clear that the “resignation” of DEQ staffers was planned well in advance.

So why wasn’t Schuette’s investigation planned before it became clear that the US Attorney is also investigating?

At a time when MI is facing a $1.9 million bill for Schuette’s personal tirade against equality and can’t pay to fix its roads, Schuette has launched this private investigation that will need a separate appropriation to compete with the pre-existing federal one.

He did not put a timeline or cost estimate on the investigations, though he said he was in discussions with legislative leaders regarding a possible need for additional appropriation to fund the operation.

Schuette’s belated interest in seeing if any laws have been broken sure does stink.

Governor Snyder: You Were Not Hired to Be Jerry Lewis

On Tuesday, self-described wonk Rick Snyder used much of his State of the State speech to take responsibility for poisoning Flint’s children. Though by the end of the week, Snyder was limiting the extent of his responsibility because the “experts” didn’t exercise “common sense.” (See video here.)

“The department people, the heads, were not being given the right information by the quote-unquote experts, and I use that word with great trial and tribulation because they were considered experts in terms of their background, these are career civil servants that had strong science, medical backgrounds in terms of their research,” Snyder said. “But as a practical matter, when you look at it today and you look at their conclusions, I wouldn’t call them experts anymore.”

[snip]

This is something that we don’t consider just what one person did, let’s look at the entire cultural background of how people have been operating,” Snyder said. “Let’s get in there and rebuild the culture that understands common sense has to be part of it, taking care of our citizens has to be part of it.”

[snip]

The Republican governor added: “What’s so frustrating and makes you so angry about this situation is you have a handful of quote-unquote experts who were career service people that made terrible decisions in my view and we have to live with the consequences with that. They work for me, so I accept that responsibility.”

It’s a very curious argument for a guy who — still! — gets treated as someone who puts policy over ideology, in spite of the years of serving as Dick DeVos’ puppet approving of bad policy over and over.  (In the same appearance, Snyder took credit for things President Obama’s Administration has given to Flint, including Medicaid expansion under ObamaCare, but that’s a long-standing schtick of this governor.) Effectively, a guy whose entire political gimmick is that he relies on experts is now saying those damned experts didn’t exercise enough common sense.

Yes, Governor. The experts did not exercise enough common sense.

But something else Snyder did this week drives me even crazier than his equivocation over wonkdom, just as it became clear his particular approach to policy — especially his insistence that emergency managers can fix the pervasive problems of Michigan’s cities — had poisoned Flint’s children.

Rick Snyder channeled Jerry Lewis, the telethon guy.

In the middle of his speech — and in his website dedicated to this issue — Snyder solicited donations.

If you’d also like to aid Flint, please go to HelpForFlint.com to volunteer or donate. If you are a Flint resident who needs help getting the water you need, go to HelpForFlint.com.

Hell, Snyder’s not even as competent as Jerry Lewis! Because while two of the links Snyder includes on his site go to sites dedicated to helping the people of Flint deal with this crisis — one to Greater Flint’s Community Foundation and the other to a United Way fund specifically set up to benefit Flint — Snyder’s third donate link goes to the Red Cross’ general SE MI site, such that any funds donated might go to other entirely worthy causes but not Flint.

Anyway, here’s why this has been bothering me all week.

First of all, Rick Snyder is worth something like $200 million, and while he returns his gubernatorial salary, he brings in around $1.9 million a year. So this is a guy making making $36,500 a week asking people who (using the Michigan average household, not individual, income) $48,500 a year to donate to help Flint. Your average Michigan household is doing almost twice as well as your average Flint household (average $25,000 a year) — so it is certainly within their charitable ability to help their fellow Michigander. But clearly the kinds of donations that Rick Snyder could afford would go much further to helping Flint than the kind of donations most Michiganders could afford.

But here’s the more galling thing.

We got into this position because Michigan (under a Democrat, originally, but expanded under Snyder, than reinforced after voters of Michigan rejected that approach) has decided to deal with the ills of its cities a certain way. Not only doesn’t the state help out, it instead has shifted revenue sharing away from cities, which has created fiscal emergencies in many of them, which Snyder has then used to bring in state appointed “experts” to dictate to the locals what to do. The measure of those outsiders is always “fiscal responsibility,” not overall well-being or even fiscal sustainability (or what some people might call “common sense”). The result is that — with the possible except of Detroit (though even there, the human cost has been breathtaking) — city after city sells common property off and takes away services, including things like policing and … clean water  … as a way to meet those fiscal responsibility goals. Many of the cities so treated — Flint is one of but not the only archetype — keep having serial emergencies without any solutions to the underlying problems of disinvestment and segregation.

It was only a matter of time before the state’s emergency managers started doing real damage to the people living in the cities as a result (and the damage Snyder’s serially experimenting and corrupt state-led schooling replacement has been at least as bad).

From my understanding, Michigan has decided to approach its cities this way for two reasons. First, segregation: Michigan is a badly segregated state (though on that count, Flint is nowhere near as bad as many cities in Michigan). And for too long, Michigan’s politicians — Democratic and Republican — have shied away from from sharing state resources broadly, for either services or schooling, which has meant that as white flight left cities without revenue bases and as globalization hit Michigan more generally, those cities spiraled downward. Quite simply, the state wouldn’t do what Snyder wants to Michiganders to do informally, share between the more fortunate and the less fortunate.

How bizarre is that?!?! That Snyder thinks we more fortunate Michiganders should share with the less fortunate (we should!!), but he won’t use policy to make it happen?!?!? Effectively, he is suggesting the well-being of some of the state’s children should be at the whim of charity, not government policy.

But the other reason Snyder pushed through his initial emergency manager law and then re-upped it after voters rejected it is to enable certain kinds of policy outcomes. The best known of those is the breaking of the unions and with it the slashing of both wages and pensions that used to provide a middle class living for many public servants. But in some cases, the ability to have an appointed manager make decisions based solely on economic responsibility has made it easier to loot those cities, a golf course here, an art museum there, much of a downtown there. And both the ideological outcome — busting the unions — and the looting  have beneficiaries, people like Dick DeVos (net worth $6.9 billion, and whose ideological goals Snyder has placed ahead of Michigan’s well-being) and Quicken Loans owner Dan Gilbert (net worth $3.7 billion). Gilbert, in particular, has benefitted coming and going, as he got to influence how properties, including foreclosures his own company owned in Detroit, got dealt with.

And of course, Snyder pushed his expanded emergency manager approach to solving the problems of cities like Flint even while he was cutting taxes for businesses like DeVos’ Amway and Gilbert’s Quicken.

So, even at a moment when his preferred approach to dealing with real problems of a manufacturing state like Michigan resulted in the poisoning of Flint’s children, Snyder was calling for charity rather than demanding that the policy of the state ask its billionaires to invest in cities rather than looting them. (It’s important to note Grand Rapids is better off than almost any other Michigan city in two ways: it is not majority African American, and it benefits handsomely from Meijer,  DeVos and fellow Amway billionaire Van Andel family investments in the city, giving us access to arts and sports opportunities most cities of our size would not have).

Which brings me to one thus far enduring mystery about the Flint crisis.

There was one moment during this crisis when Snyder asked his rich beneficiaries to pony up some charity rather than asking the middle class.

Last year, at a time when the State acknowledged there were probable carcinogens in Flint’s water but still maintained any lead in the water reflect normal seasonal variation (!!), Snyder brokered the donation by a still unnamed corporation of 1,500 water filters to some faith leaders in Flint.

Dave Murray, a spokesman for Snyder, confirmed that the filters, distributed by the Concerned Pastors for Social Action, came from a “corporate donor that does not wish to be recognized but cares deeply about the community.”

The donor “worked with the governor to provide 1,500 faucet filters to be distributed to city homes,” Murray said in an email.

The state’s involvement in the filter distribution was never publicized and pastors told The Flint Journal-MLive Tuesday, Sept. 29, that they were asked by staffers in the governor’s office not to speak about it.

[snip]

“Those filters came from the governor,” Poplar said. “The governor seems to be the one with the golden key” to make something happen, she said.

Pastors involved with the giveaway of the filters, which were designed to remove total trihalomethanes (TTHM) as well as lead from water, said they accepted the condition that they not discuss the state’s role in securing the equipment, said the Rev. Allen Overton.

Overton and the Rev. Alfred Harris said they thought the arrangement was odd, but did not want to jeopardize receiving the water filters, which Flint residents waited in line for and which were given away in just three hours.

Now, the most likely corporate donor, both because of its potential liability for the fouling of the Flint River and because it obviously was testing the water the city of Flint was releasing, would be GM. Though that doesn’t seem to match the redactions in the emails released earlier this week. (See PDF 65)

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But I find it remarkable that the only time Snyder has actually asked any big money entities to donate in this affair was at a time when he was trying to make it all go away by shutting up the activists and leading a small portion of residents to feel better about the taste and appearance (though not necessarily the content) of their water.

That donation, like Snyder’s appeal for a sense of common good not backed by actual policy, was all show.

Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s Nanny Factory

When I wrote this post, describing Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s significant (and serial) tax lien in Maryland, I noted that the lien was very very high for just one nanny (which is the excuse Orr offered for the lien).

Using the numbers from the original Detroit News article, the average tax due from 2011 per delinquent Detroit property owner is about $1,790. Orr has been underpaying MD several times that every year, effectively asking the state to float his unemployment insurance obligations for two years until he gets around to paying them.

[snip]

Here’s another neat detail: The median household income in Detroit is $27,862. Orr consistently owes about $7,000 just in unemployment insurance for his nanny. It seems like most Detroit residents could get themselves a raise if only they tended Orr’s kids.

Scribe even did the math to show how high that lien was.

That’s a hell of a big paycheck to a nanny, to create UI liabilities in the $6500-9500/year range.

Calculating the actual tax rate can be a bit of a challenge, but this snip from a 10/14/2011 article (http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2011-10-14/business/bs-bz-unemployment-insurance-tax-rate-20111014_1_unemployment-insurance-maryland-employers-trust-fund ) says a lot: “Maryland has been stuck at “Table F” — rates ranging from 2.2 percent to 13.5 percent of the first $8,500 in wages paid, depending on an employer’s layoff history — since last year.”

Even assuming the worst layoff history, he’s paying a lot:
13.5 percent of 8500 is 850 + 255 + 42.50 = 1147.50
2.2 percent of 8500 is 170 + 17 = 187.00

It takes a lot more salary to get those liabilities up to where he’s finding himself. And I’m betting that, for the happiness of the kid(s) and parents who have to interview nannies, there is not much turnover and thus a lower layoff history, so his percentage is most likely toward the bottom of the scale.

Turns out Scribe was right.

Some, though, question how a baby sitter alone could be responsible for such a debt. The outstanding liens for unemployment taxes were for $6,595 for the 2010 tax year and another for $9,409 for the 2010-11 tax years.

“That’s an awful lot of taxes for a baby sitter. Are you sure he’s not running a day care?” joked Maryland tax attorney Jeffrey Katz.

He said the numbers don’t add up. In Maryland, unemployment taxes are capped at about $1,150 a year per employee, Katz said, so Orr would have to go through more than five baby sitters in one year to reach $6,500 in back taxes for one year.

[snip]

Orr said he doesn’t know why the tax bills were so high. The same baby sitter has watched his two children for a couple of years, arriving in the morning and leaving in the afternoon. No former employee has filed for jobless benefits, Orr said.

There is no way this lien is about Orr’s single nanny, who has never filed for jobless benefits.

Either Orr has far more staff members than he let on–more even than five, given that he hasn’t been laying them off. Which would itself be notable for a guy who is about to lay off a bunch of Detroit workers.

Or the lien is for something else entirely, and Orr just invented the nanny story because it’s the convenient excuse rich people always use for being tax deadbeats.

Governor Snyder is begging the press to move on now, so I’m guessing he has a pretty good sense that the nanny is just a cover story and that, at a minimum, Orr will soon have to admit he’s not just a tax deadbeat but also a fibber.

But the underlying excuse for the lien sure seems like it might be relevant to Orr’s fitness to fire a bunch of Detroit workers.

The Dictator Taking on Detroit’s So-Called Deadbeats Is One Himself

In the weeks before Rick Snyder disenfranchised the city of Detroit, the Detroit News suggested the problem was the city was a bunch of deadbeats.

Nearly half of the owners of Detroit’s 305,000 properties failed to pay their tax bills last year, exacerbating a punishing cycle of declining revenues and diminished services for a city in a financial crisis, according to a Detroit News analysis of government records.

The News reviewed more than 200,000 pages of tax documents and found that 47 percent of the city’s taxable parcels are delinquent on their 2011 bills. Some $246.5 million in taxes and fees went uncollected, about half of which was due Detroit and the rest to other entities, including Wayne County, Detroit Public Schools and the library.

Delinquency is so pervasive that 77 blocks had only one owner who paid taxes last year, The News found. Many of those who don’t pay question why they should in a city that struggles to light its streets or keep police on them.

“Why pay taxes?” asked Fred Phillips, who owes more than $2,600 on his home on an east-side block where five owners paid 2011 taxes. “Why should I send them taxes when they aren’t supplying services?

Nevermind that — as DDay pointed out this week — the real deadbeats are the banks which have preyed on the city.

Detroit has been ravaged by an unending foreclosure crisis. Predatory loans trapped borrowers into monthly mortgage rates they couldn’t pay, with lenders particularly targeting lower-income minority areas like Detroit. Many of those homeowners are gone now, evicted from their properties. It is a pattern that has sunk property values, making the high property tax rates in Detroit even more unsustainable. But it also has turned banks into the real deadbeats, depriving the city of revenue.

In a foreclosure, the property reverts back to the bank, which then becomes responsible for all maintenance and upkeep, as well as any fees. Some banks simply ignore these responsibilities and refuse to pay taxes or keep the vacant property in good order. The more clever banks stick evicted homeowners with the bill.

Across the country and particularly in Detroit, banks have engaged in “walkaways,” where they start foreclosure proceedings but then find them too costly to complete. They choose not to finish the legal steps to foreclosure, leaving the properties vacant.  Banks that walk away from homes do not have to notify the city, or even the borrower, that they have abandoned the foreclosure process. Borrowers kicked out of their homes then find themselves still responsible for property tax payments.

We know this kind of behavior has occurred all over the country, leaving foreclosure victims stuck with the “zombie title” to an old property for years. And Detroit is ground zero for the phenomenon. A 2010 report of the Government Accountability Office found 500 bank walkaways in just four Detroit zip codes.

Meanwhile, some of the very same banks that have gutted the tax base of the city have profited off schemes to keep it afloat, including $350 million in derivatives gone bad.

Today we learn that Kevyn Orr, the bankruptcy lawyer Rick Snyder has appointed to cure Detroit of its so-called deadbeat problem is himself a deadbeat. A far bigger deadbeat that the Detroit residents he has been made dictator of.

State records show Kevyn D. Orr, who was appointed emergency manager on Thursday, has two outstanding liens on his $1 million home in Chevy Chase, Md., for $16,000 in unemployment taxes in 2010 and 2011. Two other liens of more than $16,000 in unemployment and income taxes were satisfied in 2010 and 2011, records show.

[snip]

The Washington, D.C., bankruptcy attorney blamed the problems on an outside accountant hired to file his tax returns, said Sara Wurfel, a Snyder spokeswoman.

“There was apparently an oversight related to a childcare provider unemployment insurance payment,”

[snip]

A lien for $7,022 in unemployment taxes for the 2008 tax year was entered on July 17, 2009, and satisfied on Aug. 20, 2010. Another for $9,409 in income taxes for the 2008 tax year against Orr and his wife, Dr. Donna Neale, was entered on Aug. 11, 2010, and satisfied on Oct. 3, 2011.

Two other liens over unemployment taxes — $6,985 for the 2010 tax year and $9,201 for the 2010-11 tax years — are outstanding, said Frost, who reviewed the records.

Using the numbers from the original Detroit News article, the average tax due from 2011 per delinquent Detroit property owner is about $1,790. Orr has been underpaying MD several times that every year, effectively asking the state to float his unemployment insurance obligations for two years until he gets around to paying them.

And this is the guy Snyder thinks will rescue Detroit.

You know what might have vetted Orr well enough to discover he himself is a deadbeat and therefore probably not the one to convince Detroit residents to pay their taxes? An election.

Here’s another neat detail: The median household income in Detroit is $27,862. Orr consistently owes about $7,000 just in unemployment insurance for his nanny. It seems like most Detroit residents could get themselves a raise if only they tended Orr’s kids.

Shorter Rick Snyder: Black People Can Be Customers, Not Citizens

As Rick Snyder was announcing the takeover of Detroit’s government, paving the way for an Emergency Manager for the city, his staff tweeted out this:

“Citizens of #Detroit are the customers of the city, not just the citizens. We need to figure out how to provide them great service.”

It might be a nice sentiment (if many public services under Rick Snyder, especially education and services helping the poor, hadn’t already been cut to make way for tax cuts for businesses, and if the entire point of an EM weren’t to make further huge cuts to services).

Except that if and when Detroit officially gets an EM (there is an appeal process that will roll out over the next couple of weeks), the people of Detroit will, temporarily at least, lose their ability to elect representatives to run their city. Down the road, after Detroit has continued to disintegrate for 18 months (EMs have never turned around a city), elected representatives will be able to get rid of the EM. But until then, local democracy in Detroit will be dead.

And so at precisely the moment when Snyder moved to locally disenfranchise 40% of Michigan’s African Americans — leaving half of Michigan’s African Americans locally disenfranchised — he relabeled those African Americans (and Latinos, and remarkably few whites) “customers.”

Black people, Rick Snyder seems to be saying, can be customers, but they can’t be citizens.

We have spent the week talking about whether or not we still need a Voting Rights Act. Given the cynical new ways politicians are using to disenfranchise people of color, I say it’s time to expand it, not end it.

Emptywheel Twitterverse
emptywheel I could skip some local ads and listen to Lady Gaga sing the anthem again.
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bmaz @OKnox Wait. What? Make a Wish Foundation made Chris Martin feel like he was actually a valuable and competent rock star??
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emptywheel RT @GabrielleWilson: BEYONCE IN THAT MICHAEL JACKSON SUPER BOWL FIT https://t.co/G919sWvPOq
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bmaz Another Laptop Of Death!! https://t.co/tyCIbrvHg2
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emptywheel Bring back Super Man!!! Now, with Left Shark!!!
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bmaz My wife got excited when saw Springsteen and Stones, thought might be present instead of videos of better days. Alas, no, just more Coldplay
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emptywheel All you really don't need to know during the actual Super Bowl. https://t.co/2B4fJL1tFN
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emptywheel Apparently 23 years, and now I know why I was missing Michael Jackson at the beginning... https://t.co/0dvVnj42o5
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emptywheel Halftimes only got big about 12 years ago, right? So that 50 year history was really just 12?
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bmaz I would have never guessed that Coldplay by itself would be the highlight of a cobbled together halftime show? Overproduced rubbish.
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JimWhiteGNV One of these things is not like the others.
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emptywheel If Beyonce and her dancers get off this crappy field w/o breaking an ankle I'll be impressed.
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