CHICAGO – A prosecutor told jurors Friday that a one-time suburban Chicago water official lied for decades about drawing village water from a well tainted with a cancer-causing chemical, while her attorney declared her a scapegoat of an inner circle of powerful men.
Former water department supervisor Theresa Neubauer, 55, has pleaded not guilty to lying to authorities about Crestwood pumping polluted water, which they allegedly did in order to boast to voters in the 11,000-resident village about keeping water rates low.
The competing claims about Neubauer came during Friday's closing arguments at a federal trial in Chicago. Jurors began deliberating at about noon Friday, just after U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall read them instructions on how to assess the evidence.
It is the only trial to date in a scandal that infuriated residents and left many fearing for their health. Only two officials were charged, the other being co-defendant Frank Scaccia, the certified water operator. He changed his plea to guilty earlier this month.
Taking the floor first Friday, prosecutor Tim Chapman told the jury that Neubauer helped conceal the practice. He displayed disclosure forms over several years where she indicated no well water was drawn.
"She told lie after lie, month after month, year after year," he said. He went on to say she was a member of the village's "inner circle."
But later, defense attorney Thomas Breen portrayed Neubauer as nothing more than a glorified clerk who took orders from Crestwood officials higher up the chain of command.
He then pointed to her and apologized for what he was about to say.
"You served cake and coffee," he said, looking at Neubauer. "That's how close you got to the inner circle."
During closings, Neubauer displayed no expression but fidgeted constantly with a pen, rolling it over her fingertips. Dozens of Crestwood residents looked on from courtroom benches.
Raising his voice, Breen told jurors that those truly responsible for the decisions to draw the contaminated water were, in his words, letting Neubauer "wear the jacket" for their misdeeds.
"It's about a bunch of men who, when push comes to shove, are cowards. Cowards!" he shouted.
The prosecutor scoffed at the notion that Neubauer was ignorant of the village's water practices.
"That is nonsense," he told jurors. "She carefully tracked the use of that well for nearly 30 years."
Officials drew the tainted water until 2008 even after environmental officials warned in the mid-1980s that cancer-causing chemicals had oozed into the well, prosecutors have said.
Officials in Crestwood, about 20 miles south of Chicago, saved nearly $400,000 annually by mixing in contaminated water with cleaner but pricier Lake Michigan water, according to prosecutors.
Pending lawsuits blame the well water for a variety of illnesses.
A 2010 health department report did find cancer rates were higher than average in Crestwood, but it didn't make a definite link to the tainted water.