Flint leaders to announce bill buying time for further prosecution in water probe

LindaParton/iStock(FLINT, Mich.) -- Just after dawn, Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich wakes up. Bleary-eyed, he shuffles downstairs to the kitchen.

He can already hear his 4-year-old son, Jake, softly stirring in his room. Jake likes to ease into the day, but soon he'll emerge, hungry.

Jake wants oatmeal. Jim reaches in the cupboard for their big Quaker Oats variety box, picking cinnamon. A half-full 35-count value pack of purified water is perched on top of the fridge. More bottles are stacked on the shelves inside.

Ananich grabs strawberries and two water bottles, light bouncing off their clear plastic ridges. He snaps the caps' seals and pours the water over a few fat, red berries.

Snap. Another bottle for the instant oats.

Ananich will use filtered water for his coffee, but for Jake it's always pure, bottled water. He doesn't let his son turn on the faucet. The kitchen sink remains untouched.

In Flint, Michigan, that's what you do.

It's been five years since the city's water crisis was began. Now, even after officials have said the situation is vastly improved, Flint residents' trust in their water -- and in their government -- is badly corroded.

"It's this invisible fear -- and I can't think of a day when it's not there," Ananich said. "You can't see the lead poisoning. But it's a constant thing -- that maybe they're lying again."

Repairing that trust takes, among other things, time. But if the people of Flint are aiming for more prosecutions in the water probe, the clock's ticking down. A crucial statute of limitations for one of the most prevalent crimes in the case, misconduct in office, will expire in the spring of 2020. And so would much of the city's hope for justice.

Ananich and his colleague, state Rep. John Cherry, D-Flint, are pushing to change that, exclusively telling ABC News they plan to introduce a bill Wednesday morning to extend that statute. It allows prosecutors to seek legal action against emergency managers, department leaders, local officials or any other public leaders who may be responsible for what happened in Flint.

That extension holds huge potential: It would mean four more years to review 20 million newly uncovered documents, for due process to breathe properly and for an investigation to come to full term.

"We want to make sure prosecutors have the time they need to process the voluminous amount of new evidence they've got now that were not turned over before," Cherry told ABC News. "And not to rush it. Human memory is so fragile ... but because this will rely on so much documentary evidence, it really avoids any potential he-said-she-said."

Ananich added, "It's so simple, but so important."

"The case was bungled from day one. Now, time is of the essence," he said. "We've got to make sure this case gets the time and energy it deserves. We just can't allow time to be the rationale for not achieving that justice."

Earning back trust will take time, and it will take accountability. The new bill's language takes special heed of who might be implicated in the case -- any public official -- without gray areas or loopholes.

The city's saga strikes deep and personal for Ananich: He and his wife both grew up, and spent most of their lives, in Flint. Now, they're raising their son there. Jake is adopted and was in utero just as the water crisis was born.

"When Jake was a baby, oh boy, all these things go through your head -- we obviously couldn't breastfeed, so I'm thinking, how could I wash the bottles? You know, you just want to protect him. You rethink all your habits -- your hand halts, you'd look at that faucet, and think ... I dunno," Ananich says. "I take responsibility very seriously that I'm a servant of Flint -- and a father of Flint. And I ask myself from the beginning -- could I have done more?"

This bill buys time and a crucial step towards closure. But the question now is whether the Republican-led legislature will go along with the move. ABC News has reached out to Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield for comment, but has not received any replies.

Ananich and Cherry both expressed optimism about the potential for bipartisan support.

"This affects people in either party," Cherry said. "I don't think this really has a partisan atmosphere to it. Government accountability is important to people on both sides of the aisle. I'm not convinced this will fall along party lines."

"The politics of water are everywhere now, and I won't play hot potato with the blame. I'm not putting my finger on the scale -- and we're not doing this to 'get' people -- it's whatever is needed to give people justice is what I'm fighting for," Ananich said. "I would hope [Republicans] would agree. Maybe I'm being too naive, but I'm optimistic. I'm less optimistic than before the water crisis started, but we keep the lines of communication open here, and I think this is one where we can get a win for the citizens of Michigan."

"When you leave your Capitol office, you're still a human being, right? And, I think, if you're thinking about this from an empathetic standpoint, and you think, 'This happened right in my community, my people, myself included,' it's not who's to blame -- Democrat, Republican lens -- you look at it as this never should have happened," he added.

When the city's source of water was first switched in 2014, it was meant as a money-saving move: disconnecting from Detroit's water line and drawing from the Flint River instead.

But the water wasn't treated properly, allowing lead to leach from the pipes. With a flick of one small black button on the city's north side, that defining spring day in 2014, the city's fate shifted.

Fifteen people who worked in the Michigan state and local government were criminally charged in connection to the water crisis -- over 65 other officials' cellphones and other information were seized. Then, state prosecutors announced they were dropping the charges in favor of launching a new and expanded investigation.

Three of the 15 originally charged have already taken a plea deal. Charges against the others include felony misconduct in office, willful neglect of duty to conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter. If those charges are revived, they could touch top officials in Flint and Michigan governments who stand accused of saying the water was fine.

In this new probe, Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy have said they are not precluded from refiling charges against defendants or adding new charges and additional defendants.

But that all depends on the case carrying forward in time.

What's next for Flint turns with the tide of Congress and the new investigation.

"I can't tell you when I'll be satisfied," Ananich said. "I'm always hesitant to say if I ever will be with Flint. There's so much damage. I want people to think twice before they think they can pull this again. And I want them to know there are consequences. But I have hope we can take this tragedy and turn it into something for the good."

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

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