Kadner: Jury says you can’t just follow orders
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org April 29, 2013 11:18PM
Former Crestwood water official Theresa Neubauer leaves Dirksen Federal Building following guilty verdict with Attorney Thomas Breen, Monday, April 29, 2013 | John H. White~Sun-Times
Updated: June 1, 2013 6:14AM
“I was just following orders.”
Those are among the scariest words an ordinary person can hear from the mouth of a government employee.
They mean something terrible has happened. That people have probably been harmed. And that public officials engaged in criminal conduct simply because someone higher up said it was OK.
“I was just following orders.”
That was the defense used by Theresa Neubauer, a former head of the water department in Crestwood, who on Monday was found guilty by a federal jury of falsifying documents that allowed tainted well water to flow into her community’s drinking supply.
Her lawyers called no witnesses on her behalf. There was no one who could say what she did was right.
Her lawyers told the jury during closing arguments that Neubauer was simply a dupe, a clerk in the water department, someone who handed out baked treats to village employees and actually knew nothing about department operations or the cancer-causing substance in the well.
Most of that is probably true, which is exactly why Neubauer was placed in a position of authority.
She wasn’t supposed to know anything, didn’t want to know anything and followed orders without question.
“Sign on the dotted line.” Sure.
By the way, Neubauer, the innocent dupe, was later appointed police chief in Crestwood due to her fine work in the water department. She has remained police chief on a paid leave of absence while under federal indictment.
Her defense attorneys were paid by Crestwood because the village’s elected leaders were grateful for Neubauer’s continuing loyalty after the feds came after her.
Ask anyone who has lived in Crestwood for any period of time, and they will tell you that to keep your village job you did what former Mayor Chester Stranczek said. Those who refused were fired.
Stranczek, who was not indicted in this case, is undoubtedly Public Official A, the person so identified in the federal indictment as giving the orders to mix the tainted well water with Lake Michigan water in the drinking supply. Stranczek now lives in Florida and suffers from dementia.
When he left office, his son became the mayor, and when his son decided not to seek re-election this year, a longtime Stranczek loyalist, Trustee Lou Presta was elected to succeed him.
Losing your job, your paycheck, can be a very tough thing.
Every day, there are working stiffs who do things they would rather not to pay the bills, put food on the table, provide health insurance for their families. That’s a reality and is understandable.
But there has to be a line that people will not cross to protect their jobs.
There must be orders that people will not obey to ingratiate themselves with bosses for job security, salary hikes and promotions.
Neubauer’s lawyer told the jury that her superiors were “cowards” who refused to take the fall for their actions and made her “wear the jacket” for the wrongdoing.
He mentioned village trustees in that statement as people in the know, although to this day the trustees claim they knew nothing.
Neubauer was dumb enough to put her name on paperwork. She falsified documents, assuring the public and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency that the contaminated well water was not being used.
Yet, she refuses to accept responsibility for that. She blames the people who gave her orders.
That’s the definition of cowardice.
She may indeed have been unqualified, but that’s precisely why she was given the job in the water department. The village insiders trusted her to break the law and keep her mouth shut and she did.
And now Neubauer, this dupe who would follow any order from political bosses, is the police chief of Crestwood.
Well, maybe she will finally be fired, given the jury’s decision to convict her.
Hundreds of people who have lived in Crestwood over the past 20 years have filed lawsuits against the village, claiming they or their loved ones have suffered various ailments caused by the drinking water.
The village has paid more than $5 million in attorney fees already.
In addition to the lawsuits and the federal trial, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed a criminal complaint against the village.
Crestwood’s former water department operator Frank Scaccia pleaded guilty to falsifying documents before Neubauer’s trial began. He, too, claimed he was only following orders.
And Crestwood paid for his defense attorneys as well.
Yet, there has been little in the way of a public outcry in Crestwood.
Many residents told me they simply don’t believe the government’s evidence or the newspaper reports about the water scandal.
Why would Neubauer, Scaccia, Stranczek or anyone else put their lives and those of their loved ones at risk?
I can’t answer that question. But I’m not sure Crestwood residents have had the courage to ask the people involved.
Stranczek’s motive was to save the village money. Water pipes in the village were leaking Lake Michigan water, and he didn’t want to report that fact or have the village pay for repairs.
The well water was a cheaper alternative and could be used simply by ignoring an IEPA order not to use the well.
Stranczek never believed in government regulations, which he viewed as an unnecessary expense.
He was a successful businessman who was arrogant and ignorant, and no one around him had the courage to say as much. He made sure he was surrounded by “yes” men who followed orders.
And that’s how Neubauer rose through the ranks and could justify signing false documents.
She did her job.
Many people in Crestwood still believe she did nothing wrong.