A longtime suburban Chicago water official pleaded guilty Thursday to lying about drawing drinking water from a tainted well - the first conviction in a scandal that left village residents fearing for their health.
Frank Scaccia, 61, stood before a federal judge in Chicago with his hands folded as he pleaded guilty to one count of engaging in a false-statement scheme. He faces a maximum prison term of up to five years, though prosecutors planned to seek less than that.
Speaking in a hushed, calm voice, the heavyset Scaccia admitted he had lied about piping in polluted water for decades to supplement Crestwood's supply from Lake Michigan.
In one of a series of questions before she accepted the guilty plea, U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall asked Scaccia if a public official - who she did not name - had asked him to mix in the pollute water.
"I was following directives," he said haltingly.
"Following directives. But you did do it?" she asked again.
"Yes, your honor," he responded.
Officials drew the tainted water for 20 years until 2008 after environmental officials warned in the mid-1980s that cancer-causing chemicals had oozed into the well, prosecutors said.
It was apparently designed as a money-saving measure: Officials saved the village of 11,000 nearly $400,000 annually by mixing in contaminated water with the cleaner but pricier lake water, the prosecution alleged.
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.
Scaccia also played a role in telling residents in annual consumer reports that the village's only source of drinking water was Lake Michigan when he and other officials knew that wasn't true, prosecutors said.
Scaccia changed his plea just days before his trial was slated to begin in the same courtroom. The trial for his co-defendant - another former water official, Theresa Neubauer - is scheduled for April 22.
At Thursday's hearing, Scaccia told the judge he was on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, but he assured her he was thinking clearly and able to enter a plea.
No sentencing date was immediately set for Scaccia. Prosecutors said Thursday they'll ask for a term of up to around two years, while a defense attorney said he will argue probation is appropriate.
Scaccia was indicted in 2011 on 23 counts of making false statements. After he is sentenced later this year on the one count, prosecutors indicated they will formally drop the 22 other counts.
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