CHICAGO – A federal jury didn’t hear from prosecutors about toxic chemicals in the drinking water of Crestwood, south of Chicago. Or about higher-than-normal cancer rates in the working-class village.
But on Monday the jury ensured that the only public official to stand trial in the tainted water scandal will be held accountable for a more than 20-year scheme to conceal the secret use of a Crestwood well – crimes first uncovered by a 2009 Chicago Tribune investigation.
Following a weeklong trial and less than seven hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Theresa Neubauer, the village’s former water department supervisor, on one criminal count related to her involvement in the plot and 10 others for making false statements in official documents.
Another official charged in the case, former certified water operator Frank Scaccia, pleaded guilty this month to a single count of lying to environmental regulators.
Neubauer, 55, on paid leave as Crestwood’s police chief, showed no visible emotion when U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall read the jury’s verdict. Speaking to reporters afterward, Neubauer described herself as a clerk forced to take the blame for former Mayor Chester Stranczek and other top village officials who used the well to avoid the cost of fixing leaky water mains.
“I was on the bottom of the food chain, just there to do my job,” Neubauer said, her voice breaking. “But I’m the only one standing here today answering for these charges while everybody else is off enjoying their life.”
Prosecutors focused their case on reports required under federal and state law to track municipal water use and ensure residents their drinking water is safe.
Using a giant screen in the courtroom, assistant U.S. Attorneys Erika Csicsila and Timothy Chapman showed the jury how Neubauer and an “inner circle” of other Crestwood officials kept two sets of documents in village files starting in the early 1980s.
One set, for internal use only, outlined how much water was pumped monthly from the tainted well directly into the village’s drinking water system. The other set, sent to state and federal regulators, claimed the well never was used.
Other documents in the files included handwritten ledgers that showed the well at times provided up to 20 percent of the village’s drinking water. A clerk from Crestwood Village Hall testified that the distinctive handwriting is Neubauer’s.
Ten counts against Neubauer related to false statements made in official documents between 2005 and 2007, including forms that account for the set amount of Lake Michigan water allocated to Crestwood and annual water quality notices sent to residents.
The jury also convicted her on the 11th count, finding that she participated in a scheme from 1987 to 2008 to conceal the use of the well. Each of the counts carries a maximum five-year prison term. The judge set a tentative sentencing date of Oct. 2.
“The evidence proved very clearly that she certainly was not just someone sending letters on behalf of other people,” Chapman said after the verdict. “She was actively engaged in keeping track of how much well water was being used and also was the one responsible for sending out the reports.”
By secretly drawing water from their contaminated well, Crestwood officials saved $380,000 a year that otherwise would have been spent maintaining the village’s water system, according to court documents. They also avoided routine testing that would have alerted authorities to toxic chemicals in the village’s drinking water.
Prosecutors did not discuss toxic chemicals found in the well, including two cancer-causing compounds related to perchloroethylene or perc, a common dry cleaning solvent. Nor did they mention a 2010 study by the Illinois Department of Public Health that concluded the contaminated water could have contributed to “significantly elevated” cancer rates in Crestwood.
The village’s water quality could become an issue during Neubauer’s sentencing hearing, Chapman said.
Neubauer did not testify, and her attorney, Thomas Breen, did not call any witnesses. Throughout the trial, Breen theatrically portrayed her as a bookkeeper who had an important-sounding title but little power, at one point saying the closest she came to the inner circle of village leaders was when she served them “cake and coffee.”
But an agent from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency testified that Neubauer confessed to her involvement in the scheme during a April 2009 raid at Village Hall. After agents showed her falsified reports the village had sent to regulators, Neubauer wrote “not true” next to a series of zeros in columns listing the amount of water drawn from Crestwood’s well.
She wrote “incomplete” on another form that stated the only source of drinking water in Crestwood was Lake Michigan water treated by Chicago and purchased from neighboring Alsip. “Well being used,” she wrote on the document as the agents watched.
Another official repeatedly mentioned during the trial was Stranczek, who led the village of 11,000 for nearly 40 years and often said he ran it like a business.
Stranczek is listed as “Public Official A” in court documents that identify him as the official who signed federally mandated Safe Drinking Water Act reports that stated Crestwood’s water was free of toxic chemicals. Court documents accuse Stranczek and his top lieutenants of ordering village employees to keep using the well even after state regulators told the village in 1986 that it was contaminated.
Prosecutors would not comment on why they opted not to charge Stranczek. But attorneys defending him in ongoing civil cases hired experts who concluded that the former mayor, who stepped down in 2007, has “mild to moderate” dementia caused by Parkinson’s disease and is not fit to stand trial.
Stranczek’s penny-pinching reputation once led the National Enquirer to dub Crestwood the “best-run town in America.” Now the long legal battle over the tainted well has cost the village nearly $6 million in attorney fees and forced elected officials to cut off annual property tax rebates to residents.
Insurance has covered about $1.6 million, according to a tally provided by John Toscas, a village trustee. Disputes about other claims are pending in court.
In addition to the criminal charges against Neubauer and Scaccia, the Tribune investigation prompted Gov. Pat Quinn and state lawmakers to take steps intended to ensure that Crestwood’s water problems aren’t repeated in other communities. New laws require more frequent monitoring of public wells, prompt disclosure of water contamination to consumers and tougher penalties for deceiving state officials.
“Everyone has a right to trust that their drinking water is safe,” said Randall Ashe, special agent in charge of the EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement in Chicago. “I hope this verdict sends a message to every public official involved in operating drinking water systems in this state: If they lie, they are going to be investigated and prosecuted.”