Emails offer window into state’s Flint crisis-management efforts

Posted at 2:08 PM, Feb 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-27 14:08:38-05

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Thousands of emails newly released by Governor Rick Snyder provide a behind-the-scenes look at how his administration tried to manage the Flint water crisis.

Some provide story lines on his administration’s ineffectiveness in dealing with the issue. Thousands more are duplicative and dull, while others expose staffer frustrations as the crisis grew increasingly out of control after the lead contamination issue was uncovered in September.

>> READ: See all of the emails released by the Governor’s office on Friday and Saturday.

Ari Adler is an administration special projects manager who predicted in an email more than a year ago that the Flint situation was a “public relations crisis” that was “waiting to explode nationally.”

About 11 months later, Snyder’s then-Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore wrote: “help… get me out of this mess.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared Oct. 25-31 national Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, but Snyder’s staff opted out of issuing a proclamation.

“Given recent events I am not sure this is something we want to be issuing,” wrote Laura Stoken, Snyder’s manager of constituent relations.

The communications staff discussed in Oct. 6 emails that Snyder should be more visible in Flint to show he cares.

Then-communications director Jarrod Agen, who is now the chief of staff, wrote: “Don’t forward or spread this around, but give me your take. I think we may need to get G into Flint this week. Unpublicized, but public. Filter distribution, testing visit, discussion with Superintendent, etc… (And probably again next week.)”

Then-Press Secretary David Murray responded: “I think this is a good idea. One thing we keep hearing is that the governor is not involved or is detached … This would be good to show he’s there and cares. And if we don’t announce until he’s there we can avoid the protests — and still get the optics.”

Documentary filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore tweeted in December for Snyder to be recalled, arrested and imprisoned for “poisoning the ppl left behind in Flint,” prompting an email from former communications director Meegan Holland reading: “The pot stirrer and attention whore.”

The holiday season was no respite for the administration due to the release of a critical auditor’s report and a letter from a Snyder-appointed task force investigating the crisis that laid responsibility at the door of the state Department of Environmental Quality. Communications staffers grumbled as the story drew increasing media attention from The New York Times, the BBC and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

In a Dec. 21 email responding to an apparent lunch invitation, constituent relations manager Laura Stoken wrote, “I’m hoping I can get (away) today — I am anticipating getting slammed” because of a Maddow program.

Separately, Stoken asked whether a form letter being sent to people who write to Snyder should be revised to respond to Maddow’s pointed coverage. Holland replied that Maddow has stirred up controversy but adds, “to answer all her inaccuracies would take more time than what you’d want to give.”

Also on Dec. 21, Murray sent a message to senior policy adviser Karen McPhee with the subject line, “Tell me if I was overacting to this,” referring to a radio report that mentions him. “You are not over-reacting,” McPhee responds, adding that the “first sentence is insulting … personal and professionally.” She also describes the report as “childish” and “very immature.”

When a New York Times reporter requested an interview with Snyder, Murray sought advice from others on Jan. 5 when he emailed asking: “Do you think there’s benefit in giving the New York Times 10 minutes on this issue? He’s going to write the story whether we are in it or not, and after the horribly one-sided Washington Post story, it might be helpful to get our side in a national publication.”

They ultimately decided to offer up a “surrogate,” but debated over who it should be.

Meanwhile, one of those emails shows that Muchmore wasn’t happy about Michigan’s environmental director being replaced due to the Flint water crisis.

Muchmore said in a Dec. 29 email released Saturday that Dan Wyant was “one of the most exceptional directors in state government history over the last 40 years.” Muchmore was preparing to leave his job and wrote the message to his successor.

Snyder accepted Wyant’s resignation as head of the Department of Environmental Quality after a task force said that agency was largely to blame for allowing Flint’s drinking water to become contaminated with lead.

Wyant had drawn criticism from environmentalists. But in his email, Muchmore said it would be hard to find a replacement trusted by the business community.