CHICAGO — A federal judge Thursday pointed the finger of blame directly at an uncharged ex-mayor as she declined to imprison two former water officials for lying about mixing tainted well water into a Chicago suburb's drinking supply.
Judge Joan Gottschall sentenced both Theresa Neubauer, 55, and Frank Scaccia, 61, to two years' probation — also ordering Neubauer to do 200 hours of community service and placing Scaccia under six months of home confinement.
In deciding not imprison the former Crestwood officials, the judge said prison time would have hastened the ailing Scaccia's death, and she called Neubauer "a low-level soldier" in a scheme led by then-Mayor Chester Stranczek.
The former mayor, she went on, was a "charlatan" and an "evil genius" who ordered subordinates, including Neubauer and Scaccia, to mix contaminated well water with cleaner but pricier lake water so he could brag to voters about keeping water rates low.
Stranczek's own deteriorating health made it impossible to ever even file charges against him, Judge Gottschall and prosecutors told Thursday's hearing.
"So, I'm left to do justice the best I can," Gottschall said, explaining her sentence to a courtroom crowded with relatives of the defendants and residents of the Crestwood.
There's no telephone listing for Stranczek in Crestwood. His former attorney says he no longer represents Stranczek. In one of his few public comments on the matter in 2009, Stranczek said, "I've never been accused of doing something wrong."
Officials in the 11,000-resident village mixed the contaminated water with water from Lake Michigan from 1982 until the allegations arose in 2008. They kept pumping the polluted water even after environmental officials warned in the mid-1980s that chemicals had oozed into the well, prosecutors said.
Gottschall said the objective was to ensure the mayor would be "perpetually elected" by citing his alleged credentials as a fiscal conservative. By drawing the well water, they saved around $400,000 annually, prosecutors have said.
Before the judge announced the sentence, Neubauer apologized to the residents of Crestwood in a brief statement. But she added that she never had an inkling that the well water might be contaminated.
Scaccia echoed that in his own statement, "I never realized there (was a health threat). ... I drank the water. I still drink the water."
Neubauer's lawyers have also argued for years that she was made to take the fall for Stranczek.
Neubauer, who had also served as Crestwood's police chief, was found guilty of making false statements to environmental regulators. Each of the 11 counts carried a maximum five-year prison term. Scaccia had pleaded guilty to one count of engaging in a false-statement scheme. He also faced a maximum prison term of up to five years.
Prosecutors at Neubauer's trial did not directly raise the issue of how contaminated the well water was and whether it made residents sick, saying conclusive finding were difficult, in part because of poor testing by the village over the decades.
But prosecutor Erika Csicsila said Crestwood residents will have to deal with the anxiety that some current or some future illness might have been brought on by the tainted water.
"Crestwood residents are left with a life of uncertainty," she said.
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