Attorney General Dana Nessel’s Flint water ‘wall’ dividing criminal and civil cases may have some cracks

Nessel’s communications director Kelly Rossman-McKinney previously consulted for a Snyder-appointed Flint water criminal defendant — and publicly and financially supported Snyder

Longtime public relations guru Kelly Rossman-McKinney, left, is communications director for Attorney General Dana Nessel, right. - Twitter
Longtime public relations guru Kelly Rossman-McKinney, left, is communications director for Attorney General Dana Nessel, right.
On Saturday, the Flint water crisis turned six without new charges being filed on the day that AG Dana Nessel’s lead criminal prosecutors previously told Flint residents served as the statute of limitations for new felony misconduct in office charges related to the water crisis.

Before the deadline passed, AG Nessel’s office responded to a recent bombshell VICE story that revealed Governor Rick Syder’s chief of staff Dennis Muchmore, state treasurer Andy Dillon, and right-hand man Rich Baird had been secretly subpoenaed by former special prosecutor Todd Flood — and that Flood was building a criminal case against Snyder — by vowing that their investigation was still “on track” and that the statute of limitations wouldn’t constrain their efforts.

After the VICE report, Metro Times obtained audio of one of Baird’s alleged payoffs, showing Baird meeting with sick Flint resident Adam Murphy and then-wife Christina weeks after Adam attracted media attention when he was removed from a water town hall after yelling at state officials in 2017. The audio shows Baird lying about Snyder and other top officials being assured Flint’s water situation was “under control” early on during the water crisis. This was false; as VICE reported, in October 2014, Snyder’s environmental lawyer Valerie Brader pleaded via email to Snyder’s chief of staff Muchmore, and then in a conference call with former Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley and Baird, about the “urgent” need to switch Flint off of the Flint River and back to Detroit’s water system. After that conference call, VICE reported, Baird allegedly threatened Brader to never send another email like her Flint warning again. Metro Times also published investigative subpoena documents from Baird’s two days of confidential testimony with special prosecutor Todd Flood in 2017.

On Monday, AG Nessel’s office also expressed “grave concern over the unauthorized disclosure of investigative subpoena transcripts.” They did not specify whether they are investigating the disclosure of the documents.

And now, days after the statute of limitation passed with no charges, Metro Times has uncovered new details that may suggest potential conflicts of interests close to Nessel in relation to the water crisis probe. Metro Times learned that Nessel’s communications director, Kelly Rossman-McKinney — a former Michigan Senate candidate and longtime Michigan PR guru who was dubbed the Democratic half of the bipartisan Michigan PR firm Truscott Rossman — advised two of Governor Snyder’s ex-Flint emergency managers, Darnell Earley and Ed Kurtz, along with ex-Flint public works director Howard Croft on the water crisis. The work was previously reported by the Detroit Free Press as “giving pro bono water advice to Flint” without the recipients being identified. Two of the officials Rossman-McKinney advised, Earley and Croft, were charged by Nessel’s predecessor AG Bill Schuette in 2016 with false pretenses related to the allegedly fraudulent KWA bond deal that preceded the water switch. In 2019, Nessel dropped those charges alongside Flint water charges pending against five other defendants, including Snyder’s health department director Nick Lyon and chief medical executive Eden Wells. Lyon and Wells had both been bounded over by two judges after year-long pre-trials to face jury trials for involuntary manslaughter over their roles in the water crisis.

Rossman-McKinney’s role as AG Nessel’s communications director— while the AG was dropping charges against two defendants that Rossman-McKinney had consulted for — poses a “political problem” for Nessel, former Genesee County prosecutor Arthur Busch tells Metro Times.

“The political problem obviously is if she [Nessel] has advisers that were working for the other side [Snyder] of the team — it definitely doesn’t look good,” Busch says. “If she [Nessel] has somebody that’s cheering against her from the inside of her office that kind of begs the question why she doesn’t wall that person off.”

Busch notes he didn’t see any legal conflict for Nessel in terms of Rossman-McKinney serving as her communications director.

Earley, Kurtz, and Croft did not respond to Metro Times' request for comment regarding the nature of Rossman-McKinney’s consulting for them. According to the Detroit Free Press, Rossman-McKinney also represented Veolia, the engineering company former AG Schuette filed civil charges against in 2016 for alleged negligence for faulty analysis of Flint’s water woes in 2015. Veolia filed for a change in venue out of Genesee County in February 2020; AG Nessel responded that the engineering company’s request doesn’t meet the requirements for a change of venue.

Before consulting for emergency managers and Croft, Rossman-McKinney appeared to be consulting for Snyder and his administration — some of which was crisis communications for top Snyder officials in the early stages of the Flint water crisis.

“This issue is out of hand,” Rossman-McKinney wrote to Snyder’s chief of staff Dennis Muchmore in February 2015 regarding the water crisis fallout. “I’m concerned about the implications that this [the water crisis] may have racial overtones. Ugh.”

Nearly a year later, she issued a tweet in response to a Vox news article suggesting Flint’s lead poisoning wasn’t a race issue: “Except in Flint — where ALL kids, regardless of race, are at risk.” According to DATAUSA, Flint’s population is 53.4 percent African American and 37.5 percent white.

The Snyder administration’s relationship with Rossman-McKinney seemed to go both ways: in November 2015, Snyder’s press secretary Sara Wurfel joined Rossman-McKinney’s PR firm as vice president of public affairs.

Before joining Nessel in the AG’s office, Rossman-McKinney publicly spoke out in support of Snyder — and against AG Nessel’s predecessor Bill Schuette’s charges against Sndyer administration officials.

“Ridiculous overreach,” Rossman-McKinney tweeted in response to involuntary manslaughter charges against Snyder’s cabinet official and head of the state health department Nick Lyon (which were later dropped by Nessel while Rossman-McKinney served as her communications director).

Rossman-McKinney also endorsed the belief that it was flaws in government bureaucracy that led to the water crisis — not misdeeds or negligence by Governor Snyder.

“Karl Rove praises One Tough Nerd (Snyder) for stepping up to the plate to fix the Flint water situation. Says wasn’t Snyder’s fault but bureaucracy,” Rossman-McKinney tweeted on March 4, 2016; a day after the Republican presidential primary debate was held in Detroit. The theme that bureaucracy was at fault was a consistent talking point issued by Snyder and other top officials.

A week before that tweet in 2016, Rossman-McKinney suggested that Governor Snyder and state Republicans minimize attention on the Flint water crisis ahead of the Republican and Democratic presidential primary debates both being held in Detroit.

“You want to do two things. You want to showcase a substantive victory for a Republican administration … and also minimize attention to what is clearly a flaw, which is Flint,” she told Flint Journal.

A review of campaign finance records by Metro Times shows Rossman-McKinney donated $100 to Snyder’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign and another $700 to his 2014 re-election. Rossman-McKinney’s previous donations to Snyder, and water crisis consulting to the Snyder administration and Snyder’s Flint emergency managers, is interesting in light of Nessel’s criticisms while an AG candidate of then-special prosecutor Todd Flood’s previous donations to Snyder, who Nessel said was “ostensibly one of the targets of the investigation.”

“Schuette effectively recused the office of (attorney general) due to a ‘conflict of interest’ since the state of Michigan employs many of the defendants, then proceeds to appoint a special prosecutor with an even bigger conflict of interest,” Nessel told Bridge magazine before the election. Flood donated $1,000 to Snyder in 2010 and $2,000 in 2014; he previously donated $500 to then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Granholm in 2002 and another $1,200 to Governor Granholm in 2006. Flood declined to comment for this story.

AG Nessel’s communications director also seems to have had a chummy relationship with Snyder’s wife, Sue Snyder: in 2013, Mrs. Snyder was the “surprise guest” at a Truscott Rossman company event; in 2014, Rossman-McKinney tweeted out a photo of her and then-first Lady Snyder showing off luxury Shinola watches together.

“Lady Shinolas! Sported by me and First Lady Sue Snyder!,” the tweet boasted. Rossman-McKinney’s former PR partner John Truscott told Metro Times that this photo was taken at an event with hundreds of people.

When Metro Times asks Truscott whether his former PR partner Rossman-McKinney’s role as AG Nessel’s communications director posed a conflict of interest in regards to the Flint water criminal investigation, he says “my opinion is not relevant.”

He also confirms our reporting that Rossman-McKinney provided pro-bono consulting for Snyder-appointed emergency managers.

“Kelly provided free advice to everyone from Mayor Weaver to some of the EM’s [emergency managers,” Truscott says. “She actually had more interaction with the Mayor than anyone else involved in the city. There was no contractual arrangement — if people called, she responded.”

But sources close to Weaver, who asked for anonymity to protect themselves from retaliation, tell Metro Times that Rossman-McKinney’s involvement during the water crisis didn’t appear to be exclusively free advice to the Snyder administration and Flint officials.

“It seemed like she was there with the governor’s team,” a source who was part of a group meeting early on during Mayor Weaver’s first term tells Metro Times about Rossman-McKinney appearing at a meeting comprised of Mayor Weaver, other city officials, and Governor Snyder’s right-hand man Baird.

According to sources connected to Weaver, the ex-Flint Mayor never picked up the phone seeking Rossman-McKinney’s PR advice nor did she have the personal interaction with Rossman-McKinney that her former partner alluded to. In fact, Genesee County Chamber of Commerce attempted to get Mayor Weaver to use Rossman-McKinney’s PR firm for paid communications related to the city’s water crisis, but Weaver turned down the offer in favor of Lansing-based PR firm Martin Waymire.

In 2019, Rossman-McKinney also served then AG-elect Nessel on her transition team soon after Nessel publicly criticized the Flint water criminal investigation as “politically charged show trials” while still a candidate. Rossman-McKinney didn’t respond to Metro Times’ question on whether she was advising candidate Nessel when she publicly criticized Schuette and Flood’s investigation. A source familiar with then-candidate Nessel’s relationships during the campaign tells Metro Times that Nessel and Rossman-McKinney did speak during the campaign and ran into each other at campaign forums where candidates spoke (Rossman-McKinney was running for state senate), but didn’t know the nature of their communications.

Nessel’s signal of potentially overhauling the investigation had an impact; multiple sources familiar with the Flint criminal probe tell Metro Times that former Flint emergency manager Gerald Ambrose, who along with emergency manager Darnell Earley had been charged by former AG Bill Schuette and Flood with felony false pretenses related to alleged KWA pipeline bond fraud, was cooperating with prosecutors when Nessel began hinting changes were coming if she were elected. Afterwards, he stopped cooperating, sources tell Metro Times. Ambrose didn’t respond to Metro Times’ request for comment.

Metro Times asked her several questions about whether it is a conflict of interest for her to serve as Nessel’s communications director considering her previous consulting for top Snyder administration officials on the Flint water crisis, her consulting for Snyder-appointed Flint emergency managers (who were criminally charged by Schuette and then had charges dropped by Nessel), her consulting for engineering firm Veolia, and the appearance of a chummy relationship with Snyder’s wife. Rossman-McKinney forwarded our questions to Courtney Covington, a spokesperson for the criminal side of the investigation, who tells Metro Times “any questions regarding the work at Kelly’s former firm should be directed to John Truscott [Rossman-McKinney’s former PR partner].”

Metro Times expressed confusion as to why the spokesperson for the criminal side of the investigation was responding to our inquiries to AG Nessel’s communications director considering AG Nessel has routinely stressed the rigid “wall” that exists in the AG’s office between the criminal side of the Flint water investigation (led by Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud) and the civil case that Nessel is presiding over.

“Ultimately and as I’m sure you already know, Kelly wouldn’t be in a position to answer the questions you have outlined, but since you mentioned work from her former firm, you’re welcome to reach out to them,” Covington says.

It remains unclear why AG Nessel’s communications director Rossman-McKinney wouldn’t be able to answer questions herself about her previous consulting and public support for Governor Snyder, who VICE reported had been under criminal investigation by former AG Schuette and Flood’s investigation.

The “wall” between the civil and criminal side of the Flint water case was built in 2019. Then, Nessel told Michigan Radio she had consulted with the AG’s office ethics officer to ensure it was proper for the AG’s office to be both defending state officials in civil matters while simultaneously prosecuting state officials on the criminal side.

It’s unclear whether Nessel sought ethics clearance on the hire of Rossman-McKinney in light of her previous advising for top Snyder administration officials, advising for Snyder’s Flint emergency managers, work for engineering firm Veolia, and apparent personal relationship with Snyder’s spouse.

Former Genesee County prosecutor Busch poured cold water AG Nessel not being involved in the Flint water criminal investigation.

“She’s the Attorney General elected by the public; there’s no grounds for her to stay out of the criminal case,” Busch says. He adds that in decades working in the criminal justice system, he can’t recall a time when an attorney general disqualified their office from a criminal case, noting that the normal dynamic is usually an attorney general outsourcing the civil side of a major case and leading the criminal side. Nessel did the opposite.

“The reason for that is because she didn’t rely on the person who was most likely to be involved if in fact there in fact a conflict which is the county prosecutor [Genesee County prosecutor David Leyton]. You have a county prosecutor, that’s what their job is supposed to be. I don’t understand why he [Leyton] didn’t take the cases.”

Leyton assisted ex-special prosecutor Flood’s three-year investigation before Nessel fired Flood and his chief investigator Andy Arena. Instead of doing what Busch recommended and appointing Leyton to lead the criminal prosecution, Nessel appointed Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy.

Melissa Mays, a Flint resident and leading activist who served as one of the plaintiffs on the lawsuit against the state of Michigan that netted $97 million toward new service lines in Flint, goes further than Busch in criticizing Nessel and the criminal investigation.

“We asked Attorney General Nessel how the office of the Attorney General can pursue criminal charges against the same individuals her office was defending,” Mays tells Metro Times. Mays adds that Nessel told residents her office built an “invisible conflict wall” that separated “defending the same people against the civil cases as well as running the criminal investigation.”

But new revelations detailed here by Metro Times have all-but erased Mays’ confidence in the legitimacy of Nessel and the criminal investigation.

“Seeing these tweets by her Communications person that were obviously pro-Snyder and that she had consulted pro bono on behalf of of Snyder’s appointed Emergency Managers and spoke out against the manslaughter charges against Nick Lyon, who said ‘everyone has to die of something,’ it just solidifies what we in Flint felt in our guts; that the actions and inaction of the current AG are nothing but political ploys to help their wealthy friends get away with the harm caused to Flint residents and that our hopes than anyone will be held accountable are in the garbage right next to the dismissed criminal charges,” she says.

(Wayne State engineering professor Shawn McElmurry, who was tapped by the Snyder administration to investigate Flint’s legionella outbreak, said Lyon made the “everyone has to die of something” comment. Lyon denies he said it.)

The wall in AG Nessel’s office seemed to face potential cracks in February 2019; after hiring outside Rathburn Public Relations to conduct communications for the criminal investigation, Nessel’s office terminated the contract two weeks later. According to the Flint Journal, Carrie Rathburn Hawks, the president of Rathburn PR, said the company contract was ended when Nessel’s office “determined it could continue to handle media questions with its own employees — without it causing a conflict of interest.”

On the termination, Rossman-McKinney says that the AG’s office attorneys terminated the contract with Rathburn PR because it determined “we could do it (speak for the office about both civil and criminal cases) in-house … We don’t have a conflict,” she says. Rossman-McKinney didn’t respond to Metro Times on whether she played a role in the termination of the outside PR firms’ contract.

On Monday, four days after Metro Times published audio of Governor Snyder’s right-hand man Rich Baird allegedly attempting to pay off sick Flint resident Adam Murphy, Baird called for an end to the criminal investigation. His lawyer criticized reporting that painted Baird as a “villain” since he tried to “help city residents.”

Christina Sayyae, who was married to sick Flint resident Adam Murphy at the time of the meeting with Baird in 2017 where he allegedly attempted to pay off Adam, responded to Baird’s call to end of the investigation:

“The only helping he did was help quiet down Adam,” Sayyae tells Metro Times. “He had no intention of ever helping me or my kids. After Adam and I divorced, they never answered me...sounds like he made Adam quietly walk away hoping we wouldn’t speak about it. Now it is he tried to help people; it’s disgusting that he can even get away with this article. If he didn’t want this coming back on him he should of kept his word [to offer medical treatment] instead of leaving us to die.”

Sayyae’s ex-husband, Murphy — who Baird allegedly told would be the state’s “lead poster-child” if his state-funded chelation treatment worked at reducing his blood lead levels — also had a stern response for Baird.

“I just want justice for Flint as far as the corruption that needs to be exposed,” Murphy tells Metro Times. “We need the proper health care and this is an environmental health crisis! Rich Baird, along with all of them that were involved in poisoning us, needs to be held accountable and prosecuted to the fullest.”

Baird did not respond to Metro Times’ request for comment.

On new revelations of potential conflicts of interest in Nessel’s office, and on the future of the criminal investigation, Mays’ wasn’t optimistic.

“When you look at these tweets and information about AG Nessel’s team added to the current state of our open civil cases and tossed out criminal cases, it proves that ‘Justice for Flint’ is as much of a lie as this invisible conflict wall.”

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About The Authors

Jenn Dize

Jenn Dize is the founder of Courage News, reporting on issues of corruption that impact everyday people with deep-dive investigations and in-field reporting. She has extensively reported on the ongoing Flint water crisis in Michigan, political and governmental corruption, workers' rights, houselessness, and systemic...
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