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LeDuff: Nessel's bungling cheats Flint of justice

If incompetence were a crime, Attorney General Dana Nessel would be in prison for her handling of Flint.

You remember Flint? Thousands poisoned. An untold number dead. All because a grubby group of politicos and lawyers wanted to make money on a new and totally unnecessary water utility.

The outrage lasted for months, but now it's over. It is highly improbable that anyone will ever serve a single day behind bars now that the Supreme Court has refused to grant Nessel's office another shortcut.

Genesee County Judge Elizabeth Kelly ordered Nessel's office last year to go back and create an independent “taint team” to determine whether documents her office seized from defendants violated their attorney-client privilege. (Think Trump and the Mar-a-Lago raid.) Nessel's team was warned of a need for a taint team but ignored that advice.

Nessel's office fought Kelly's ruling, arguing it would take two years and $37 million to review some 20 million documents they had taken.

A three-judge Court of Appeals panel upheld Kelly's order in March. Then two weeks ago, the Supreme Court refused to hear Nessel's appeal.

And so no justice for Flint.

Let's go back to 2018, when candidate Nessel exploited the mass poisoning of Vehicle City for personal political gain. Nessel claimed the work done by Special Prosecutor Todd Flood and lead investigator Andy Arena was incompetent. She even insinuated that the pair were lining their pockets with taxpayer money.

(In his career as an FBI special agent, Arena took on Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, members of the Gambino crime syndicate and Ohio Congressman James Traficant.)

Candidate Nessel promised then — if elected — she would fire both Flood and Arena and tank their “politically charged show trials.”

And Attorney General Nessel kept that promise. She dropped all charges against eight public officials, including two emergency managers, in 2019, and started over. That's when cooperating witnesses stopped cooperating and Nessel's inexperienced team, led by Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud, started taking short cuts.

Instead of holding preliminary examinations, Nessel's office used a one-man grand jury to charge former Gov. Rick Snyder with willful neglect — a misdemeanor — as well as recharging several others with a new round of indictments of manslaughter and misconduct.

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled this summer a one-man grand jury doesn't have the power to issue indictments. Nessel's team argues that while the Supreme Court ruled a one-man grand jury may not issue indictments, his findings can still be used to seek a warrant. 

The problem there is that those findings may have been influenced by tainted evidence. Judge Kelly will issue her findings in writing. One hopes that's before the November election.

Despite assurances from Nessel's office claiming things are moving forward, people in the legal world know time is running out. The switch to the Flint River as a source of drinking water for 85,000 people occurred more than eight years ago. Evidence has grown cold and memories have grown dark. The statute of limitations is creeping up, depending on the person and the charges.

So it's worth saying again. It's doubtful anyone goes to prison.

“I don't think anybody will,” Arena told me. “Justice for the people in the city of Flint? They're not getting justice.”

Arena says he had built a compelling case showing the architects of the alternative water proposal were less than forthright in what they could deliver. But that prong of the case was never pursued by Nessel's office.

“Some of these guys it wasn't their first rodeo,” Arena said of the people he had targeted in his investigation. “They've been around. They've done this before. They'll do it again.”

It's an election year, and Nessel with every setback shovels more lilacs on the mountain of dung she has created. She should be forced to explain herself. The people of Flint deserve at least that much.

Charlie LeDuff is a columnist for The Detroit News and host of "The No BS News Hour." His column appears on Wednesdays.