Moss’s decision to hire ACLU investigative reporter crucial to uncovering Flint water crisis

April 20, 2016

In its report released in late March, the task force appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to investigate the Flint water crisis called the disaster a clear case of "environmental injustice," and a failure of state leadership. Identified as a chief culprit in the crisis was the state’s flawed emergency manager law, which the task force said hindered governmental checks, balances, and accountability.

It was with these very concerns in mind that Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, made a somewhat unprecedented decision. Not long after the most recent emergency manager law was passed in 2012, Moss hired an investigative journalist to look into the actions and decisions made by emergency managers.

“I was concerned about the emergency manager law and the what it meant for democracy, and government transparency, and accountability,” Moss said.

Particularly concerning to her was the fact that at one point, more than half of the state’s African American population was living in cities under emergency managers, according to Moss.

“I wanted to know what decisions were being made and what their impacts were, and knew it would take someone with a special skill set to do so effectively.”

That someone turned out to be veteran investigative journalist Curt Guyette, who ran the news department of the Detroit Metro Times, the largest circulating alternative weekly in the metro Detroit area, for nearly two decades.

Guyette spent most of his first year on staff investigating Detroit public school reforms, but turned his attention to Flint — which had been under emergency control since 2001 — in January 2015 after the ACLU office began receiving calls from concerned residents.

Over the next several months, Guyette began investigating and reporting on Flint’s water for ACLU’s Michigan Democracy Watch Project, even as local and state officials assured residents and the media that everything was under control.

He obtained a leaked EPA memo indicating high levels of lead in Flint, and wondering why the state was saying the water was safe, he evaluated their study. His discovery: That they had dropped a toxic sample and selected samples from Flushing Road, whose pipes had been upgraded.

By September, due in large part to Guyette’s coverage, the Flint water crisis was a growing local story; by early 2016, it gained national prominence.

Guyette and the ACLU of Michigan have been praised for their role in moving the story forward. The Michigan Press Association recently named Guyette the state’s 2015 "Journalist of the Year."

Moss, who recently returned from a national ACLU staff conference where Flint was a main topic of conversation, said that “the fact that we used an investigative journalist was very much on people’s minds.” Several other ACLU offices are following Moss’s lead and are in the process of hiring investigative reporters.

“I think this illustrates that the ACLU has a variety of tools at its disposal,” said Moss. “We file lawsuits [when necessary], but we have other tools for helping protect individuals’ rights and liberties.”

--Story by Paul Gully (MPP '16)

Kary L. Moss is a visiting lecturer at the Ford School. She has served as the executive director of the ACLU of Michigan since 1998.