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Juneau Empire on waste indictment and worker accountability:

Posted: Tuesday, January 02, 2001

Unless and until proven otherwise, the city's wastewater utility superintendent is entitled to a presumption of innocence on felony charges he tampered with water samples to make the content look cleaner than it was.

As judges and lawyers tend to say at the beginning of criminal trials, the fact that someone has been charged is no evidence of guilt. Such comments address juror tendency to believe people end up on trial only if they did something illegal. The more reasonable nuance of human nature is that people end up on trial only if several other responsible, fair-minded people believe they did something illegal.

The criminal justice system requires police to have probable cause before making an arrest and prosecutors to give equal consideration to exculpatory and incriminating evidence. The presentation of evidence to a grand jury is important step in the process. In the absence of a judge, prosecutors preview their case before an independent panel of citizens.

The return of an indictment means the panel learned enough to believe a crime occurred and that a particular person was responsible.

As we learned this week, a panel of grand jurors in Anchorage believes Andrew Bronson of Juneau diluted water samples from the Mendenhall sewage treatment plant before they were tested for compliance with federal pollution-control standards.

The alleged tampering is supposed to have taken place after Bronson was notified by the EPA that the plant at times was not in compliance with cleanup requirements and that continued failure to comply could result in penalties.

The intriguing element of the story was the mention by Juneau Assembly members of videotape evidence. For now, the public does not know what the whole tape shows or who made the tape. The presumption, however, is that it played a role in the indictment.

Based at least in part on a briefing by City Manager David Palmer and City Attorney John Corso, some assembly members expressed support for Bronson.

Deputy Mayor John MacKinnon went so far as to say federal officials are not acting in good faith.

If the Mendenhall sewage treatment plant was not meeting required cleanup standards, were federal officials then also not acting in good faith for saying that it should?

Are city officials and assembly members suggesting the city and Bronson are victims of a federal conspiracy?

Assembly member Cathy Munoz said ''The city is committed to protecting the employee...''

The city should be committed to protecting the rights of this employee as it would the rights of any employee accused of a crime. The city's equal obligation is to allow the truth to emerge.

If the city's response to compliance requirements was based on anything besides science and truth, ''protecting the employee'' should not take the place of accountability.

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