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With trial on tap, Crestwood could be in for long legal road

TriciKrause sits with pile medical bills accumulated from care 2 her 3 children who are pictured behind her her home

Tricia Krause sits with a pile of medical bills accumulated from the care of 2 of her 3 children, who are pictured behind her, at her home in Orland Park, Illinois, Wednesday, April 17, 2013. Krause was the guiding force that helped bring major legal changes to the village of Crestwood and its water supply after her own children came down with a rash of horrible illnesses. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 22, 2013 6:57AM



The federal trial against Crestwood’s former water department chief is scheduled to start this week, but the legal battles over whether village officials lied for more than two decades about their water supply’s purity is likely far from over.

Frank Scaccia, the village’s former water operator, pleaded guilty this month to lying to state regulators about the village using tainted well water in its drinking supply. On Monday, the former head of the water department, Theresa Neubauer, is set to go on trial in U.S. District Court in Chicago.

Prosecutors say village officials told residents and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency it was only using Lake Michigan water after 1985, when it discovered a village well had been tainted by vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen. But the IEPA later discovered the village continued to use the well for as much as 20 percent of its drinking water from 1985 to 2007.

Crestwood has spent more than $5 million on legal fees stemming from related lawsuits, one village official said. And it’s facing an avalanche of lawsuits that could wind up costing the village more than $100 million in court costs and settlements, the official said.

Crestwood faces more than 100 lawsuits from about 250 current and former residents who claim they developed cancer, tumors, immune system disorders and other health problems from drinking the polluted water.

The village also has been sued by the Illinois attorney general’s office, a legal case that’s expected to ramp up after Neubauer’s trial.

One pending lawsuit belongs to former Crestwood resident Tricia Krause, who first challenged village officials about the water quality after her son and daughter developed leukemia and tumors as children. Krause and her children are named as plaintiffs in the suit.

“No money could ever replace the damages they’ve done and the suffering of people in Crestwood,” Krause said. “Money doesn’t fix anything.”

How much could it cost?

So far, the village has spent about $5.6 million in legal fees associated with the water scandal lawsuits, according to documents produced by Trustee John Toscas and shared with the SouthtownStar. Toscas is an attorney who lost the April 9 mayoral election to Trustee, who declined comment for this story, citing the pending litigation.

The documents that Toscas produced tally up the legal bills submitted by firms representing the village in the lawsuits as well as $350,000 the village previously agreed to pay for the legal defenses of Scaccia and Neubauer.

Scaccia, who testified during his plea hearing that he is living on Social Security disability money, and Neubauer signed village ordinances agreeing to return the money if they were found guilty.

Toscas speculated that legal fees and settlements for all of the lawsuits, by the time they’re tried or settled, could cost tens of millions of dollars. The legal costs have already had an effect on Crestwood’s finances — in 2009, Mayor Robert Stranczek canceled the village’s popular property tax rebate due in part due to the legal fees.

“The village doesn’t have that money plain and simple,” Toscas said. “There’s just no money left, there’s nothing there.”

Crestwood has settled at least one water-related lawsuit. In December 2010, it came to a $2.3 million settlement with residents who sued after learning they were not getting Lake Michigan water as promised for more than 20 years.

Attorney Jay Paul Deratany is one of the many attorneys representing plaintiffs in the lawsuits. He predicted a legal victory and guessed that the village might set up a special tax to pay for the lawsuits.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt they breached their duty to these people,” Deratany said. “I think we’re going to slam this home.”

Attorney Joseph Madonia, representing Crestwood, believes the courts will throw out the lawsuits after reviewing 47 different water tests taken over the period when residents received the water from the tainted well.

“The argument is if there’s nothing there, nothing could have made them sick,” Madonia said. “We won’t get to the point of ‘what else could have made them sick?’ All we know for sure is it wasn’t this water.”

Then there’s the lawsuit Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed in June 2009 against the village, Robert and Chester Stranczek and Scaccia. A Madigan spokesman said the lawsuit is on hold pending the outcome of the criminal trials.

Tainted water

Scaccia and Neubauer, who later became Crestwood’s police chief and is on paid leave from that position, were charged in August 2011 with 23 and 22 felony counts, respectively, with lying to IEPA investigators about the water supply.

The indictment alleges that Scaccia and Neubauer acted with unnamed “Public Official A,” who had authority over the village’s water system, including the use of the well water. Between roughly 1999 and 2007, “Public Official A” signed regulatory documents on behalf of the village. Attorneys representing Chester Stranczek, who was mayor for 38 years until 2007, identified him as “Public Official A.”

Scaccia, who faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for his crime, told U.S. District Court Judge Joan Gotschall this month that he was “following directives in order to keep (my) job,” when he doctored monthly operating reports regarding the water. He said the person who told him to cover up the scheme was “Public Official A.”

Chester Stranczek was not named in the indictment. He resides in Florida and suffers from dementia related to Parkinson’s disease and will be unable to testify at Neubauer’s trial, according to authorities.

Krause, who lived in Crestwood from 1986 to 1996, hopes the legal process, as costly as it might be, brings closure to Crestwood residents.

“What they’ve done to all these citizens and these people and families like my own, no time in jail will be long enough,” she said.



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