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Two former Crestwood officials get probation in water scandal

TheresNeubauer as she arrives Dirksen federal courthouse downtown Chicago 2011. | Sun-Times files

Theresa Neubauer as she arrives at the Dirksen federal courthouse in downtown Chicago in 2011. | Sun-Times files

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Updated: December 23, 2013 2:58PM

Calling former Crestwood Mayor Chester Stranczek an “evil genius” who’d dodged justice, a federal judge showed mercy Thursday on two officials who carried out the notorious south suburban politician’s orders when they helped put polluted well water in his village’s water supply.

Theresa Neubauer, 55 — a former Crestwood Police Chief, who also ran the water department for years — and water operator Frank Scaccia, 61, were each sentenced to two years probation by U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall.

Though prosecutors urged her to send both defendants to prison for their role in the scandal, Gottschall said that Scaccia’s terminal illness and Neubauer’s place “low on the totem pole” meant that wasn’t appropriate.

Evidence at a trial this summer showed that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency determined in 1986 that the well was contaminated and ordered Crestwood to stop using it, but that Neubauer and Scaccia — under orders from Stranczek — helped hide the continued use of the well.

It contained vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing chemical, which may be linked to the elevated levels of cancer among Crestwood residents, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Sentencing Neubauer and Scaccia, Gottschall said the case was about “perverting Democracy” to help re-elect Stranczek. The former mayor didn’t want to pay for upgrades to the water system so he could “fool citizens into thinking he was a fiscal genius when in fact he was a charlatan,” the judge said.

Stranczek, now living in Florida, only escaped prosecution because of his failing mental health, which prevents him from ever standing trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Chapman said.

Both Neubauer and Scaccia, who has late stage renal failure, made emotional apologies Thursday, saying they and their own families also drank the tainted water and that they’d gone along with the scam because Stranczek would have fired them if they’d blown the whistle.

Gottschall told a courtroom packed with Crestwood residents — hundreds of whom have pending civil lawsuits — that she knew the lenient sentences could not “make right the wrongs that have been done,” adding the case raised “extremely profound issues about the moral obligations of public servants.”

Both defendants were “basically good people who, when push came to shove and they were called upon to act heroically, couldn’t — and frankly most of us wouldn’t,” she said, as both Neubauer and Scaccia sobbed.

Speaking outside court, Crestwood residents Sandy and Ronald Reinstein were less impressed.

Their 17-year-old son has a mutated liver, pancreas and brain damage, which they attribute to the water scandal, they said.

“His lifetime sentence is suffering,” Ronald Reinstein said.


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