Three years after then Wastewater Utility Superintendent Andy Bronson was videotaped diluting treatment samples and four months after he pleaded guilty to violating the federal Clean Water Act, his actions and motives remain as murky to some people as the sewage the city's Mendenhall River plant was built to treat.
Deputy Mayor John MacKinnon and Assembly member Cathy Mu-oz have said Bronson was set up. Neither specified who might have conspired against him.
Assembly member Don Etheridge said he's not sure if Bronson was set up, but admitted "things don't sound quite kosher to me."
"There's more to the story than what we're being told," Etheridge said.
City and federal officials and the city employees who made surreptitious tapes of Bronson diluting effluent samples in the plant's laboratory in 1998 say Bronson was neither set up nor coerced.
"The evidence revealed that Mr. Bronson was not coerced into doing anything by any other employees," Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Feldis told the Empire. "There were employees at the plant who were concerned about Mr. Bronson's actions, and in order to bring their concerns to light they videotaped the laboratory at the plant that revealed Mr. Bronson tampering with the samples before they were tested."
Federal investigators researched the case for three years. City Manager Dave Palmer said the city provided more than 12,000 pages of documents to the investigators.
Palmer, who viewed a short portion of the videos in the U.S. Attorney's office in Anchorage, acknowledged he was a primary source of information about the case for Assembly members, but told the Empire: "I haven't suggested to Assembly members that he was set up.
"The only information I have is that Bronson said he did not do it (dilute the sample)."
Palmer said Bronson told him that he thought the sample he was handling was available for his use and wouldn't be sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Sources close to the investigation, however, said everyone in the plant knew the sample would go to the EPA.
"That's the sample that they tested every day for 12 years to see if it was in compliance with the permit," one source said.
City employees who requested that their identities remain confidential said they hid a video camera at the lab after they noted and documented numerous discrepancies with effluent samples.
On May 11, 1998, Bronson received a letter that said the EPA had identified several violations of the plant's permit, according to court records.
In June, employees at the plant suspected someone was tampering with the samples, but weren't sure who. They began to split the samples hiding one in a drawer and leaving the other out for testing. They did this more than 25 times, and on 11 occasions the sample left out ended up noticeably cleaner to the naked eye than the hidden sample, according to two sources. At that point, employees decided to hide a video camera in the lab.
The first video was shot from a box that was sitting in a closet in the lab on the morning of Sept. 17, 1998. In a five-minute copy of the tape viewed by the Empire, Bronson enters the plant's lab, takes a beaker filled with brownish liquid out of view of the camera for several seconds and then returns it.
The employees had pointed the unattended camera toward the lab's distilled water supply, assuming their subject would not use tapwater to dilute the sample, sources said.
The second video was shot Oct. 1, 1998. The video camera was placed upside down in a backpack on a chair pointing toward the sink. A copy viewed by the Empire shows Bronson dumping out some of the sample, then adding water from the lab's sink.
The employees took hidden samples and the official samples to an independent lab for testing. Each time, the samples were of different quality. But the diluted and undiluted samples also were within permit limits, according to court documents.
The employees took the evidence to federal investigators because they didn't feel comfortable going to city management, one source said.
"I had absolutely nothing to gain and a whole lot to lose. All I wanted to do was make him stop," the source said of Bronson.
In April, Bronson pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of negligently violating the Clean Water Act. He was required to pay a $10,000 fine, apologize in public, serve six months of home detention and spend three years on probation.
Assembly members voted 7-2 in July to pay Bronson's $96,000 legal bill. The money will come from the city's sewer funds.
In a memo to Assembly members, Palmer recommended that the city pay Bronson's legal bills because he "contributed to the betterment" of Mendenhall plant operations, he was not convicted of the more serious charges brought against him in the indictment and his actions did not result in a violation of the plant's discharge permit.
Palmer asked for Bronson's resignation because the guilty plea was unacceptable for a city employee, especially one in a supervisory role, he said. In his memory, the case is the first time the city has defended an employee against a criminal charge, he said.
During an Assembly discussion about the legal fees in July, Mu-oz and MacKinnon said they thought Bronson had been set up. MacKinnon was out of town last week and could not be reached for comment. He earlier pointed to what he described as circumstantial evidence and inconsistencies in the case. Mu-oz said her concerns were related to the videotape evidence and other factors.
"It raised questions in my mind. It was reasonable to conclude that Mr. Bronson was a victim of unfortunate circumstances," she said.
Mu-oz said that Bronson also implemented a system that provided stringent oversight and monitoring of the plant.
"It doesn't seem logical that he would play around with a sample with an electronic monitoring system in place," she said.
Marc Wheeler, who voted against paying the legal bill, said the Assembly was given no evidence that suggested Bronson was set up.
"The only evidence we had was that he pled guilty to the crime," he said.
Palmer said the incident doesn't make sense given that Bronson installed meters and charts that recorded the turbidity of the plant's output.
"It is inconsistent for him to install this equipment and then expect to dilute a sample taken after the effluent had passed by the turbidity meter. He put in place sampling procedures that rival secure systems anywhere," Palmer wrote in a memo to Assembly members. "For lack of a better explanation, I liken his actions to that of a millionaire with $1,000 cash in his pocket shoplifting from a store a $10 item. There is no rational explanation."
Bronson, who has moved to Lake Havasu City, Ariz., declined to comment about the case. His attorney, Brian Doherty, did not return phone calls from the Empire. Bronson's daughter Mary Ann told Assembly members in June that his family believes in his innocence.
The Mendenhall plant had operated successfully in the past, but personnel problems have plagued the facility, according to Jerry Boyd, a former shift supervisor and senior operator at the Mendenhall plant who worked for the city 19 years.
Former city employee Cecelia Niemi, a secretary at the Mendenhall plant for eight years who wasn't involved in the videotaping, questioned why the Assembly supported Bronson, an employee who had been at the plant for nine months when the tampering occurred.
She said the employees who uncovered the tampering were brave and contributed to improvements at the plant.
"We cared about the plant, we cared about making it run right and cared about the proper thing to do," she said.
Joanna Markell can be reached at email@example.com.
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