A class action suit filed in June against Benton Harbor, Michigan, revealed that a consultant to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer tried to conceal a possible repeat of Flint’s lead-filled drinking water.
City officials knew that neglecting the water system directly risked residents’ health, yet they chose to do so anyway, plaintiff’s attorneys argued in the lawsuit. A state consultant used a sneaky way to talk about it, too.
“[E]ven with data of lead contamination in-hand, these officials lied to residents that the water was safe and failed to follow mandated notice and public education requirements,” claimed plaintiff attorneys.
Court documents detail the misconduct alleged in the Plaintiffs’ complaint against state and city defendants, whom they claim exhibited intentional ignorance of deficiencies in the water system.
The attorneys further claim city and state officials hid just how bad the city’s lead crisis was, intentionally distributed false information, and proposed and enacted remediation measures known to be inadequate.
As proof of intention to conceal politically damaging information about another Michigan city providing drinking water contaminated with lead, Plaintiffs’ lawyers described an email to Whitmer.
“The top of Leavitt’s email contains three sentences rendered in Greek alphabet font (i.e., each English letter replaced with its Greek-alphabet counterpart), which appears to be calculated to conceal the statements,” the lawyers described contents of an email from EGLE consultant Andrew Leavitt.
EGLE is the state’s department of environmental conservation, which includes the Great Lakes.
“Hot off the presses,” wrote Leavitt, in Greek. “As I warned there are some major red flags. It seems like we are back at square one having not learned from Flint.”
“Plaintiffs’ Complaint details the lead poisoning of Benton Harbor residents, including infants and children, as a result of Defendants’ misconduct,” allege the attorneys in court documents.
This alleged attempt to obscure sensitive discussions from public records requests comes after Whitmer’s earlier commitment to enhance transparency in the Great Lakes State during her tenure as governor.
Although the governor’s office in Michigan is not bound by the Freedom of Information Act, Whitmer had vowed to change this during her 2018 campaign.
“Michiganders should know when and what their governor is working on,” Whitmer had declared. However, this policy remains unchanged.
Whitmer’s office continues to be exempt from public records requests, despite her earlier promise to issue an executive order making her office subject to these requests.
During her first term, Whitmer defended severance payments and confidentiality agreements with former staff members, actions that some Republicans labeled as “hush money.”
The email in question from Leavitt in 2021 addressed the lead water crisis in Benton Harbor, a town in southwestern Michigan that had been grappling with water contamination levels surpassing federal standards.
This led a group of residents in November 2021 to file a lawsuit against Whitmer, accusing her government of “deliberate indifference” in addressing the crisis.
Without the legal action against Benton Harbor, the email might have remained concealed from the public. This is because Michigan’s public records department cannot electronically search for records using Greek letters, as revealed by government correspondence obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
If someone aware of this tactic requested communications using specific Greek letters, the Michigan government would struggle to provide them without a manual search, which could be costly and time-consuming.
“I haven’t seen it before, but it doesn’t surprise me,” a public records researcher told the Free Beacon. “Agencies play games to fight requests all the time.”
“If they’re doing it here, where else are they doing it?”