April 8: Juneau Empire on wastewater tampering case:

Posted: Monday, April 09, 2001

By pleading guilty in Anchorage on Friday to two criminal violations of the federal Clean Water Act, Juneau Wastewater Utility Superintendent Andrew Bronson abandoned the presumption of innocence that followed his Dec. 12, 2000, indictment and the plea of innocent he entered in U.S. District Court on Feb. 14.

Four months after he was indicted, however, the public still doesn't know much more than was disclosed originally.

Bronson now has admitted he used tapwater to dilute wastewater effluent samples collected at the Mendenhall Wastewater Treatment Facility before the samples were analyzed by other employees at the plant.

The tampering occurred 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.

In fairness to Bronson, public and private sector employees, including managers, occasionally or regularly find themselves under pressure to meet standards or production quotas that are unrealistic. In response to appeals to be realistic, enlightened bosses will listen and adjust; others may respond with something like: I don't want to hear about your problems, just do it. Employees then may be tempted to try to meet standards and quotas by cutting corners.

In most cases, cutting corners is an internal matter. But sometimes it can be a choice between following or breaking the law. We know that Bronson broke the law. It appears he was under pressure. The city had been notified that the wastewater treatment plant he supervised sometimes failed to achieve the legally required cleanup standards.

Continued failure could mean penalties and attendant publicity. Would Bronson be held responsible? Would he lose his job? Was it really his fault? Did he share his concerns with the city's administration? Did he receive a response?

The U.S. Attorney's office in Anchorage says Bronson was the sole focus of the FBI and EPA investigation. Based on comments from Assembly members last December, we believe Bronson was caught red-handed on videotape tampering with the samples.

It appears that other plant employees knew what Bronson was doing, disapproved and set up the taped surveillance. Did they share their concerns with him? Why wasn't the evidence offered to City Hall administrators before it ended up in the hands of the feds?

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 in December. Deputy Mayor John MacKinnon went so far as to say federal officials were not acting in good faith. Assembly member Cathy Munoz said the city was committed to protecting the employee. The Assembly gave Bronson a vote of confidence by agreeing in principle to pick up the costs of his defense.

Just who was deceiving whom here?

Innocence is out the window -- and not on a technicality, it would appear. A guilty plea has been entered. Bronson awaits sentencing.

It is time for those in charge and those who know what happened to provide more complete explanations.


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