By Michael Hawthorne and Annie Sweeney, Chicago Tribune reporters
April 12, 2013
A state inspector visiting south suburban Crestwood in 2007 had a question for one of its top water officials: How could the village have pumped out more water than it had claimed to purchase from nearby Alsip?
Certified water operator Frank Scaccia shrugged his shoulders, according to court records.
In fact, Crestwood for two decades had been secretly drawing part of its water supply from a community well contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals. Federal prosecutors say Scaccia and several other village officials falsified records and repeatedly lied to state regulators.
On Thursday, just days before Scaccia was scheduled to go on trial in federal court, the former Crestwood employee pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement. He could face up to 27 months in prison and a $250,000 fine for his role in cloaking the use of the tainted well.
Theresa Neubauer, on leave as Crestwood's police chief and, as former water department supervisor, one of Scaccia's alleged co-conspirators, still faces a 23-count indictment on similar charges related to a systematic cover-up first revealed by a 2009 Tribune investigation. Her trial has been delayed until April 22.
The plea and trial are part of a long legal battle that has cost the village of 11,000 nearly $6 million in attorney fees and forced elected officials to cut off the annual property tax rebates that drew national attention to Crestwood's penny-pinching ways. By drawing water from the well, village officials saved $380,000 a year that otherwise would have been spent fixing leaky water mains, according to court documents.
"This is what we have to do," Neubauer is alleged to have told Scaccia at one point.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency had told Crestwood officials in 1986 that the well was contaminated with vinyl chloride and dichloroethylene, hazardous chemicals related to the dry-cleaning solvent perchloroethylene, known as perc. Prosecutors accuse Scaccia, Neubauer and unnamed village employees and contractors of participating in a scheme to supplement Crestwood's water supply with the tainted well water, then repeatedly lying about it in reports required under federal and state law.
The false reports stated that the village's only source of drinking water was treated Lake Michigan water purchased from Alsip and that the well would be used only in emergencies. As a result, the village avoided routine testing for toxic chemicals and water-use audits. The well wasn't shut off until December 2007.
A 2010 study by the Illinois Department of Public Health found that toxic chemicals in the village's drinking water could have contributed to "significantly elevated" cancer rates in Crestwood, though researchers could not make a definitive link.
In court documents, federal prosecutors allege that Scaccia and Neubauer were following the orders of former Crestwood Mayor Chester Stranczek, identified in court documents as "Public Official A."
Stranczek, who led the village for more than 40 years and often boasted that he guaranteed the lowest water rates in Cook County, was not charged. His paid experts concluded that the former mayor has "mild to moderate" dementia caused by Parkinson's disease and is not fit to stand trial in the federal criminal case or lawsuits filed by Crestwood residents.
Robert Stranczek, who took over as mayor from his father in 2007 but opted not to run for re-election this year, also was not charged. In a 2009 interview with the Tribune, Robert Stranczek said he had known about the routine use of the well since at least 1997, when he became a village trustee.
Like Chicago and other Illinois communities that rely on water from Lake Michigan, Crestwood is allocated a set amount to ensure that the state complies with a U.S. Supreme Court order limiting daily withdrawals. Crestwood, though, had "substantial leakage" in its distribution system, according to court records.
Scaccia, 61, and other village employees kept a secret logbook and adjusted a timer that controlled how much water was pumped from the contaminated well to Crestwood homes and businesses, records show. Scaccia also ordered a village employee to "keep quiet" about the well and to keep the well house messy to make it appear that nobody had been inside.
On Thursday, dressed in casual clothes and speaking softly, Scaccia told U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall about various health issues, including that he takes anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication. He mentioned dialysis that "leaves him weak" and often unable to venture outside his house.
Scaccia told the judge he understood what he was pleading guilty to but also said that when it came to doctoring paperwork about Crestwood's drinking water, he did what he was told.
"I was following directives," Scaccia said.
During the four years since the U.S. attorney's office launched a criminal probe, Crestwood has paid criminal and civil defense attorneys more $5.7 million to defend the Stranczeks and other officials, according to a tally provided by John Toscas, a village trustee who this week lost a bid for mayor.
Insurance has covered about $1.6 million, Toscas said; disputes about other claims are pending in court. Crestwood's chief attorney declined to provide more information without a Freedom of Information Act request.
Some of the most expensive legal bills were to prepare Chester Stranczek's defense from ongoing civil cases, including one filed by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan that accuses the Stranczeks and Scaccia of lying more than 120 times about the tainted well.
With the village paying defense lawyers who charge up to $500 an hour, Robert Stranczek told residents in October 2009 that they no longer would be getting property tax rebates.
Gov. Pat Quinn and state lawmakers responded to the Tribune investigation by requiring more frequent monitoring, prompt disclosure of water contamination to consumers and tougher penalties for deceiving state officials.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC