Kadner: Just following orders an evil excuse
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org November 22, 2013 7:52PM
Two former Crestwood water officials have been sentenced to probation by a federal judge. | File photo
Updated: December 25, 2013 6:27AM
It’s not such a bad thing to break the law if you’re a government employee who’s just following orders.
That’s the message a federal judge sent on Thursday when she handed down sentences of probation, but no prison time, for two former Crestwood employees who over 20 years falsified records that allowed tainted water into the drinking supply.
U.S. District Court Judge Joan Gottschall indicated that she believed it would have taken heroic action on the part of the two village employees to thwart the plot hatched by former Mayor Chester Stranczek, whom the judge called an “evil genius.”
I’m not sure Stranczek was either evil or a genius. But he was a bright guy who did some things that were evil.
For 38 years, the mayor had the support of Crestwood residents. He was the first mayor in the country to rebate the village portion of the property tax bill to residents, he outsourced village jobs to save money and business boomed.
He was a Republican who chafed under state and federal government regulations that he believed were too often costly and unnecessary.
So when the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency said the village’s well water was contaminated and ordered the village to no longer use it, well, Stranczek thought he knew better.
A little well water, say 20 percent, mixed in with Lake Michigan water wasn’t like to hurt anyone. And it would save Crestwood $380,000. That’s pure Stranczek.
The village is facing massive class-action lawsuits from residents who believe the water did harm them. To date, according to some reports, the village has spent $5 million on legal bills related to the water scandal.
As for Stranczek, he’s suffering from dementia in Florida, where he retired, and never was indicted, although he is mentioned in a pending lawsuit filed by the Illinois attorney general’s office.
Federal prosecutors did indict Theresa Neubauer, the suburb’s former water clerk, who eventually was promoted to police chief, having proven her loyalty to Stranczek.
Neubauer now claims she didn’t know what she was doing in the water department, was just following orders and so falsified water department reports that indicated that no contaminated well water was being used.
She could have blown the whistle on her superiors. There are state and federal laws to protect government employees who do the right thing.
But she chose not to in order to protect her job and earn that promotion.
Even after she was indicted by the federal government, Robert Stranczek, who succeeded his father as mayor, stood by Neubauer.
The village board voted to pay her legal bills up to $200,000. There even was a ceremony to honor her for her years of service.
Frank Scaccia, Crestwood’s former certified water operator, was the second village employee indicted. The village agreed to pay his legal bills up to $150,000.
Scaccia eventually pleaded guilty. Neubauer was convicted by a federal court jury. They now will serve two years on probation, with Neubauer also ordered to perform 200 hours of community service.
“I am very dismayed that the judge didn’t want to send them to prison,” said Tricia Krause, a former Crestwood resident who spent years uncovering the facts behind the well water scandal.
Two of her children have suffered from lifelong illnesses, which she believes stem from the drinking water.
“The judge indicated Scaccia’s life had been turned upside down for the last four years by the prosecution of this case, but what about all the residents of Crestwood whose lives have been destroyed?” Krause said.
“My life has been turned upside down for 25 years. Every day of my life I live with the fact that my children are sick and that contaminated water may have caused their problems.
“I don’t think the judge fully understood the harm done to residents. The message her sentence sends to people across the country is that it’s all right to violate the law if you’re just following orders. It’s all right to put the lives of thousands of others at risk.”
Given federal sentencing guidelines, there was never much chance that Neubauer or Scaccia would serve long prison terms. The prosecutors had sought a year in prison for Neubauer, two years for Scaccia.
Gottschall apparently felt that any prison time for Scaccia, who’s suffering from multiple life-threatening ailments, including renal failure, could turn into a life sentence.
As for Neubauer, the indications are the judge was sympathetic to her plea that she was a working mother trying to support her children. Gottschall also noted the good Neubauer had done for the community in various capacities over the years.
Well, everybody does some good, including crooks.
The fact is that there always are people in powerful positions who rule through fear and intimidation. We all hope, in situations like that, there is some working stiff who has the courage to blow the whistle.
You look to the low-level person because at the top, the tyrant often surrounds himself with “yes” men, people willing to do anything for a buck or promotion.
It’s not an easy thing to be an honest person surrounded by corruption. Your colleagues will turn on you. Even your friends may think you have done wrong.
I’ve never heard of political leaders raising money for a whistle-blower who was fired and tormented in the workplace.
As for Neubauer and Scaccia, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone held a fundraising event to help them out in Crestwood.
They were good political soldiers. They followed orders, even to be willing to poison the drinking supply of their community.
Such loyalty is rare. No wonder the judge couldn’t bring herself to send the Crestwood Two to prison.
Correction: John Murphey is the attorney whose father-in-law manned the news desk at WIND radio the day JFK was shot.