Around the world, the poisoning of Flint’s water supply has been known as a “crisis.” And such it has been, a public health crisis of tragic dimension for the residents of the beleaguered Michigan city. But what has happened to the people of Flint is not a natural disaster or even, as Governor Rick Snyder would have us believe, a matter of mistakes and miscommunication. Now a lawsuit has been filed that finally puts the proper name to the cause of the crisis. It was a racket.
Last Wednesday, a class action suit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Flint, naming Snyder, members of his administration and employees of state agencies and making federal racketeering claims under RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The civil suit’s class represents hundreds of Flint residents who were poisoned after the city switched its water supply to the polluted and corrosive Flint River in April of 2014.
RICO was enacted in 1970 as a legal weapon to be used in prosecutions of traditional organized crime, though its provisions have since been employed to prosecute a wide variety of defendants, including officials of the Catholic Church and the FIFA soccer organization. Before RICO, prosecutors were able to try the low-level operators who had committed crimes but were unable to reach organizational leaders, who were usually too far removed from any actual crime to be charged. RICO identifies 35 enumerated racketeering offenses—including murder, arson, kidnapping and extortion—for which any member of an enterprise can be prosecuted, including leadership. The enterprise need not, however, be a crime syndicate but can be any organization, such as a corporation or a political party, that is used by an individual or individuals for the purpose of committing at least two of the enumerated “predicate” crimes within 10 years.
The racketeering litigation filed against Snyder is a civil, not a criminal, suit. In order to invoke RICO in a civil suit, however, the plaintiff assumes the burden of proving that the defendants are guilty of criminal acts under the statute. Therefore, although the plaintiffs will be suing for damages, should the case go to trial it will take on many of the characteristics of a criminal trial. Most notably, the plaintiffs will be arguing that the defendants are guilty of intentional, not simply negligent, wrongdoing.
The suit claims that Snyder devised “an intentional overarching RICO scheme based on Flint’s run of the mill fiscal problems in order to balance the books of the City of Flint by collecting $50 million dollars [sic] for water bills for toxic water from the free Flint River water source.” Instead of addressing financial problems in other ways, the claim implies, Snyder concocted a “scheme” to sell the “free water” of the polluted Flint River to Flint residents at rates that were the highest in the United States.
Further, the filing claims that Snyder and his co-defendants fraudulently represented the Flint River-sourced water as safe. Specifically, it states that three of Flint’s string of “emergency managers”–Ed Kurtz, Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose–”knew they were switching to the unsafe, contaminated and toxic but free water source from the Flint River in furtherance of the over-arching fiscal scheme to balance the budget at all costs in conscious disregard of the health, property, and prosperity of the citizens of Flint,” and that “these acts were done in order to prevent the irate citizens of the City of Flint from knowing that the money cost-cutting plan to balance the budget and alleviate the City’s Financial Emergency was to give them toxic water for two years.”
Defendants named in the filing include Snyder; emergency managers Kurtz, Ambrose and Earley; former Flint mayor Dayne Walling; members and former members of Snyder’s administration; officials with the Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). Also named are private companies Rowe Professional Service Company; engineering consulting and contracting company Lockwood, Andrews and Newman, Inc. (LAN), and Veolia North America, a division of the largest private water concern in the world.