Arbitrator Awards $192K to Official Fired in Flint Water Disaster, Calls Her a Scapegoat

An arbitrator ordered that the only Michigan official fired in the Flint water catastrophe be given $191,880 in back pay and other compensation, calling her a "public scapegoat" who lost her position as a result of politics, the Associated Press reported.

Liane Shekter Smith was the head of the state's drinking water office when Flint's water system was contaminated with lead. She was removed from her position and later fired in 2016 for what has been called one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. She also faced criminal charges.

AP reviewed a 22-page report from the arbitrator. In it, Shekter Smith is described as having been terminated while engineers in her department were only suspended without pay and eventually permitted to return to work.

The arbitrator, Sheldon Stark, said the state didn't prove there was "just cause" in firing Shekter Smith. He also said she had an "exemplary" record in government.

"No one ever asked [Shekter Smith] for her story," Stark said.

He noted that that Department of Environmental Quality Director Keith Creagh fired Shekter Smith without ever speaking to her about Flint or waiting for a state police investigation.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Shekter Smith
An arbitrator said Liane Shekter Smith, the only Michigan official fired in the Flint water disaster, was likely a “public scapegoat” who lost her job because of politics. The arbitrator ordered she be paid $191,880 in back pay and other compensation. Above, Shekter Smith listens during a preliminary examination in the cases of four defendants, all former or current officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, in Flint, Michigan. Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP, File

"Politics and the need for a public scapegoat helps explain why Shekter Smith might have been terminated when so many others who were directly involved and actually did make" decisions in Flint were not fired, Stark said in his September report.

He ordered $166,053 in back pay and $25,827 in retirement compensation. The state agency, which now is known as the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, declined to comment but said an appeal was being considered.

A message seeking comment wasn't immediately returned by an attorney for Shekter Smith.

In 2014-15, Flint's water was pulled from the Flint River, a money-saving decision that was made by state-appointed managers who were running the poor city. The highly corrosive water wasn't properly treated before it flowed through aging pipes to roughly 100,000 residents, causing lead to leach from old pipes.

The disaster in majority-Black Flint has been described as environmental racism. In 2016, a task force appointed by then-Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, said his environmental agency misapplied lead-and-copper rules and "caused this crisis to happen."

The arbitrator's report reveals behind-the-scenes moves by Snyder's influential fix-it man, Rich Baird, who asked Creagh to take control of the department after a director quit amid the scandal.

Creagh testified that Baird "encouraged Shekter Smith's termination."

Richard Benzie, who supervised the state engineers making key decisions in Flint, was not disciplined but "promoted and given more responsibility!" the arbitrator said in highlighting the different treatment.

After her dismissal, Shekter Smith was charged with misconduct in office and neglect of duty, and put on notice that an involuntary manslaughter charge would be pursued because bacteria in the water were linked to a fatal outbreak of Legionnaires' disease.

But charges were dropped in 2019 in exchange for a no-contest plea to an obscure misdemeanor. The case was erased after a year, under a deal with special prosecutor Todd Flood.

Flint's water quality greatly improved after it returned to a regional water supplier. Meanwhile, nine people, including Snyder and Baird, were charged with crimes in January after a new investigation. Their cases are pending.