Members of the Freshwater for Life Action Coalition hold a news conference Monday to discuss next steps after a state investigation into the city’s lead program did not result in charges. From left are Robert Miranda, State Sen. Lena Taylor, former Ald. Angel Sanchez and Janette Herrera. (Photo by Matt Martinez)

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Milwaukee activists on Monday called for a federal investigation into the city’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention program following the end of a state audit that took three years to complete but reached no criminal findings.

The Freshwater for Life Action Coalition, a local lead removal advocacy group, held a news conference outside the Milwaukee State Office Building in downtown Milwaukee to announce it would be reaching out to the U.S. attorney general’s office to ask for a federal investigation into the city’s lead removal program.

The move comes after an announcement on Thursday that no criminal charges would be filed by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office after an investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice.

“They made a mistake not charging people here,” said Robert Miranda, spokesperson for the Freshwater for Life Action Coalition. “We’re going to push this and we’re going to take it to the United States attorney general’s office.”

Miranda said he will ask the attorney general’s office for an investigation and a review of the state Department of Justice’s investigation.

The investigation began in 2018 after it was revealed that the Milwaukee Health Department mismanaged cases of lead poisoning in its Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention program. This led to the resignation of former commissioner Bevan Baker.

Audits of the department, including one from the Public Health Foundation released in March 2020, found that the program had been in violation of state statutes and had severe problems documenting cases.

The city has 70,000 lead service lines, many of which are concentrated in the central city. Exposure to lead in water has been tied to a number of health problems, including behavioral health, cognitive function and neurological effects in children.

The investigation was initially started by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office before it was handed off to the state Department of Justice.

Miranda criticized the investigation for failing to interview former commissioners of the health department, including Baker and Patricia McManus. He noted their prominence in the department during the days of the review and vital information they could have provided.

“These are all key people who know what happened to those documents that the Department of Justice is saying hampered their ability to investigate,” Miranda said.

The investigation stated that disorganization in the department’s records hindered the ability to conduct the review. None of those individuals are still employees of the health department.

Miranda also identified Paul Nannis as an interim health commissioner worth interviewing, though former Mayor Tom Barrett withdrew his nomination after backlash from the Common Council. Nannis did previously serve as health commissioner before the investigations were conducted.

State Sen. Lena Taylor, who was also at the news conference, said she spoke personally with Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, who assured her of the thoroughness of the investigation.

“If you’ve not interviewed the top individuals in the health department, I don’t know how thorough it can be,” Taylor said.

In a statement, Kaul said his department conducted a thorough investigation.

“Although the evidence does not support the filing of criminal charges, the investigation showed major failures in how the Milwaukee Health Department had administered the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention program during the time period investigated,” he said. “What happened to families in Milwaukee is tragic and unacceptable, and the failures that previously occurred must never happen again.”

In a statement, Tyler Weber, deputy health commissioner for environmental health at the Milwaukee Health Department, said:

“The Milwaukee Health Department’s focus is on eradicating threats of lead poisoning in Milwaukee and cultivating an organizational culture in which the instances outlined in the DOJ report will never happen again. Our department has made tremendous strides in how it’s operated and will continue this forward momentum.”