Two former Crestwood officials who helped hide the village’s use of a polluted well were sentenced to probation Thursday as federal prosecutors lamented that they could not go after the man they believe masterminded the money-saving scheme.
In handing down the sentences, U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall agreed that mental health issues prevented the government from prosecuting former Mayor Chester Stranczek, whom she described as the “evil genius” behind an elaborate plot that made him look like a good steward of taxpayer dollars.
By secretly drawing water from a tainted community well, Crestwood officials saved $380,000 a year that otherwise would have been spent fixing a leaky 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.
Using the contaminated well allowed Stranczek to “fool the village into thinking he was a fiscal wizard when the fact was he was a charlatan,” Gottschall said.
“It was about saving money,” she added. “It also was perverting democracy to get somebody elected over and over and over again.”
The judge sentenced Theresa Neubauer, Crestwood’s former police chief and water clerk, to two years of probation for lying in official documents and concealing the use of the tainted well. The sentence includes 200 hours of community service.
Frank Scaccia, the village’s former certified water operator, also was sentenced to two years of probation as well as six months of home confinement.
Though Gottschall stopped short of handing down prison terms, the sentences ensured that at least two public officials were held accountable for crimes first uncovered by a 2009 Tribune investigation.
Prosecutors had asked for prison sentences of up to 21 months for Neubauer and 27 months for Scaccia. But Gottschall described Neubauer as a “fairly low-level” participant in the scheme and said prison would be too rough for Scaccia, who has kidney disease.
Court documents allege that “Public Official A” — identified as Stranczek — signed federally mandated Safe Drinking Water Act reports stating that Crestwood’s water was free of toxic chemicals. State regulators told the village in 1986 that the well was contaminated, but officials continued to pump water from it for years afterward.
Experts hired by Stranczek’s attorneys have concluded that the former mayor, who stepped down in 2007 after nearly 40 years in office, has “mild to moderate” dementia caused by Parkinson’s disease and is not fit to stand trial.
During Neubauer’s trial in April, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Erika Csicsila and Timothy Chapman showed the jury how Crestwood 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 was never used.
Neubauer was convicted April 29 on 11 counts, most related to making false statements in official documents.
In an emotional statement to the judge Thursday, she described herself as a single mother who has spent most of her life helping people.
“I never meant to hurt anybody,” said Neubauer, 56. “I am very remorseful.”
Like Neubauer, Scaccia, 61, said he was afraid of losing his job if he told regulators about the well. “I let myself be manipulated,” he said. “And I am truly sorry for that.”
Scaccia pleaded guilty in April to a single count of lying to environmental regulators.
Neubauer and Scaccia have maintained they were following orders from Stranczek. But prosecutors urged the judge to hand down stiff sentences as a message to officials in other cities and said Stranczek could have been put on trial years ago if either Neubauer or Scaccia had come forward.
“There is nothing more fundamental than clean drinking water,” Chapman said. “For 20 years (Neubauer) had the power to end this. All she needed to do is pick up the phone.”
Known for his penny-pinching ways, Stranczek often boasted that he ran Crestwood like a business. Now the long legal battle has cost the village more than $6 million in attorney fees and forced elected officials to cut off annual property tax rebates to residents. Though not charged, Stranczek still faces ongoing lawsuits.
State health officials have concluded that water from the contaminated well could have contributed to significantly elevated cancer rates in Crestwood.
After the sentencing hearing, Crestwood parents Sandy and Ronald Reinstein told reporters they believe their son, Lawrence, almost died as an infant because of the village’s tainted water. Lawrence, now 17, still suffers from severe liver and pancreas disease, his parents said.
“My son will go on with his life,” an emotional Sandy Reinstein said in the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. “But he has a lifetime sentence because of what the water may have done to him.”
Ronald Reinstein said the judge’s comments about the case indicated that “the people who were really in charge are avoiding it somehow and the low-level people are being targeted.”
Neubauer’s brother shared the same sentiment. Mike Neubauer said his sister was a small fish who didn’t even realize she’d done wrong until the entirety of the scheme was revealed.
“How come none of the big guys were ever charged?” Mike Neubauer said. “It just seems like there are a lot of other questions that we can’t answer.”
By Michael Hawthorne and Jason Meisner, Chicago Tribune reporters
November 22, 2013