Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
What, exactly, should we believe about Department of Health & Human Services (“DHHS”) Director Nick Lyon and the Legionnaires Disease communications breakdown?
We know that Lyon attended a meeting in January 2015 to discuss the spike in Flint’s Legionnaires Disease cases. E-mails show that Governor Rick Snyder was personally aware of some kind of problem with Flint’s water supply as early as February 2015. During his 2016 State of the State Address, Snyder said that his office had “proactively asked about the quality of Flint’s water, test results, and blood testing” in July 2015. By September and October 2015, Snyder and his top appointees were routinely communicating about Flint’s water via e-mail.
Yet according to Snyder’s former chief of staff Dennis Muchmore, the Governor did not learn of the Flint Legionnaires Disease outbreak until Lyon briefed him on the issue in January 2016. Similarly, Snyder testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight & Government Reform Committee last month that he did not become aware of Flint’s Legionella outbreak until January of this year.
If Lyon is actually guilty of withholding this critical information from Snyder for 12 months, why does he still have a job? Tuesday’s shakeup in the leadership of the state’s executive branch would have given Snyder a perfect opportunity to dismiss Lyon and replace him with someone else. But Lyon remains in place as the Director of DHHS.
Lyon will testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Energy & Commerce Committee on Wednesday. In his prepared congressional testimony, however, Lyon provides very few details about the Legionnaires Disease issue. For example, as Chad Livengood of The Detroit News has observed, Lyon’s prepared testimony “doesn’t explain why the agency never informed the public about the 2014 and 2015 outbreaks.”
Is it possible that Snyder is actually better served by keeping Lyon employed than by firing him? As long as Lyon remains in the picture, Snyder can point the finger at him for failing to timely disclose the Legionella crisis.
And then there’s the more fundamental question: How likely is it that Lyon, a top department director, did not disclose the existence of the Legionella spike to his boss until January 2016—a full year after he found out? After all, there is no indication that Lyon has been anything other than an organized, faithful, and good employee. Why would he have hidden this important public-health information from the Governor for so long?
Isn’t it just as likely that Snyder knew of the Legionnaires Disease outbreak prior to January, despite his sworn testimony to the contrary, and that Lyon is helping to deflect blame from his boss? Recall that officials suspected a link between the Flint River water and the Legionella spike as early as October 2014. Perhaps Lyon did not withhold the information from Snyder at all, but is willing to take the blame for the Legionella communications breakdown in order to hide the Governor behind a mask of plausible deniability.