Michigan judge drops charges against 7 ex-state and city officials in Flint water crisis

FILE PHOTO: The Flint Water Plant tower in Flint, Michigan

(Reuters) - A Michigan judge on Tuesday threw out felony charges against seven former state and local officials in connection with the Flint water scandal, ruling that the indictments brought against the individuals were invalid due to a procedural error.

Under state-appointed managers, the government of Flint, a majority-Black city, switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River to cut costs in 2014. Corrosive river water caused lead to leach from the pipes, exposing thousands of children to lead poisoning and leading to an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease.

Former state health director Nick Lyon, former state medical executive Eden Wells, former Governor Rick Snyder staffers Richard Baird and Jarrod Agen, former state health department employee Nancy Peeler and former Flint emergency managers Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Earley were relieved of their charges.

The decision stems from a June ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court that so-called "one-person grand juries" do not have authority to bring indictments, Judge Elizabeth Kelly of the 7th Judicial Circuit Court said in dismissing the charges, though they have power to subpoena witnesses and issue warrants.

The state's top court that month tossed out charges against Snyder and eight others.

Individuals charged by a one-judge jury have a right to preliminary examination, Kelly said. However, she dismissed the case without prejudice, which leaves a window for state prosecutors to file charges again.

"If the People seek future charges against Defendants, they must follow one of the proper charging procedures outlined by the Supreme Court," Kelly said in her ruling.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's office did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

State prosecutors decided to employ a rarely used method of obtaining the indictments, presenting evidence in secret before Genesee County Circuit Court Judge David Newblatt in what is known as a "one-man grand jury."

The water crisis in the city of approximately 100,000 was widely viewed as an example of how U.S. environmental problems have disproportionately affected communities of color.

In November, a federal judge signed off on a $626 million partial settlement for victims of the contamination, with most of the money earmarked for children.

(Reporting by Tyler Clifford; Editing by Aurora Ellis)