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Ex-worker pleads guilty to sample tampering at Sioux City wastewater plant

SIOUX CITY -- A former worker at Sioux City's wastewater treatment plant pleaded guilty Wednesday to participating in a scheme to tamper with sampling and testing of wastewater discharges to show inaccurate readings for E. coli and chlorine levels.

During his plea hearing, Patrick Schwarte admitted that he had agreed with at least one other person at the plant to manipulate water sample test results to make it appear that discharges from the plant into the Missouri River met federal guidelines. He pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Sioux City to felony charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States and falsifying or providing inaccurate information required under the federal Clean Water Act.

Schwarte, 69, of Sioux City, faces a maximum of seven years in prison and up to $260,000 in fines. A sentencing date will be set later. Schwarte was released on his own recognizance.

A plea agreement Schwarte reached with the U.S. Attorney's Office was filed under seal. While reviewing facts of the case contained in the agreement with Schwarte, Chief Magistrate Judge Kelly Mahoney revealed no new details in the case other than those contained in public documents filed earlier this month.

Schwarte's attorney, Patrick Parry, of Sioux City, pointed out to Mahoney that the sample tampering had been ongoing before Schwarte became a shift supervisor and he joined in the conspiracy once he assumed that position. Court documents show that the alleged conspiracy began as early as 2012 and continued to June 2015.

Parry said he could not comment on whether Schwarte has agreed to provide information or testimony against others who may be charged.

Previously filed court documents said other plant operators, including the plant superintendent, raised chlorine levels to wastewater on days that E. coli samples were taken. Once the samples were taken, the chlorine was added at minimal levels unlikely to disinfect discharged water enough to meet federal standards. Former plant superintendent Jay Niday told state investigators that the city saved at least $100,000 in one year by administering the lower levels of chlorine.

Those fraudulent testing procedures violated and concealed violations of the city's federal wastewater permits and the federal Clean Water Act and deceived the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which administers the city's permits, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The city fired Schwarte and Niday in June 2015 after the DNR was tipped off to the sampling manipulations and began an investigation. Niday has not been named in any court documents and it is not known if he or others will be charged.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Vavricek said he was unable to answer questions about the case because his office is not providing public comment to the media during the ongoing partial federal government shutdown. Responding to media inquiries is not deemed an essential function of the U.S. Justice Department during the shutdown.

The city's lawyer has said that Schwarte's plea is not proof of wrongdoing by other city employees and that the city has cooperated with federal agencies investigating the case.

The city could still face state penalties, though a case referred in 2016 to the Iowa Attorney General's office by the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission is currently stayed while the federal investigation proceeds.

Built in 1961, Sioux City's wastewater treatment plant, located at 3100 S. Lewis Blvd., accepts industrial, commercial and residential wastewater from Sioux City, Sergeant Bluff, South Sioux City, North Sioux City and Dakota Dunes. Once treated, the water is discharged into the Missouri River.

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Celebrating winter in NW Iowa
University of Okoboji Winter Games play out on uneven ice

OKOBOJI, Iowa -- I called to interview Kiley Zankowski about the 39th annual University of Okoboji Winter Games. Zankowski, director of membership and events for the Iowa Great Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, prepped for an "avalanche" of 30,000 to 45,000 guests this weekend and, as an aside, mentioned I'd featured her in a story a few years ago.

TGallagher / Provided 

Kiley Zankowski

"I'm the barefoot bassist who played in the Okoboji High School Jazz Band," she said.

I remember it well. Kiley was a senior at Okoboji High School in 2012 when she slipped off her black Alex Marie heels and stepped behind the bass to solo for a defending state champion jazz band directed by the legendary Greg Forney. Photographer Jim Lee pictured the musician AND her feet. "People saw my toes in the paper," she said with a laugh.

Following high school, this Okoboji Pioneer earned degrees in event management and hospitality management at Iowa State University. She's using that knowledge -- and her feet (toasty warm in boots this week, I reckon) -- making tracks from Spirit Lake to Milford in marshaling business officials and volunteers who join forces to roll out the frozen red carpet for another Winter Games.

The late January extravaganza, for most, commences with the Oak Hill Marina Chili Cook-Off at the Dickson County Exposition Center on Friday. A $5 bill gets you -- and an estimated 1,800 other diners -- an official 2019 U of O Winter Games mug and all the chili you'd like to sample. Over the weekend there are 100 or so events throughout the Iowa Great Lakes, ranging from bingo to the immensely popular Polar Plunge on Smith's Bay and the Burning of the Greens where all Christmas trees go up in flames prior to fireworks.

"It is such a big event," Zankowski said. "You plan for months and then watch as the community rallies together and makes such a fun event happen."

Tom Gustafson, 

Tom Gustafson of shot this broom-ball photo at Smith's Bay during the 2018 University of Okoboji Winter Games in the Iowa Great Lakes.

Zankowski and a few thousand Dickinson County residents kept their eyes on the skies on Tuesday, ever-hopeful another few inches of snow dropped, adding to a Friday storm that helped whiten and brighten an otherwise grassy Great Lakes. One year ago, Mother Nature blessed the region with 12 inches of snow on the Monday of Winter Games week, a storm that likely had a "million-dollar impact" on the area.

"Last year we had similar late ice and late snow," Zankowski said. "As you know, Winter Games happens no matter what kind of weather we have."

The 2019 University of Okoboji Winter Games Chair Dr. Adelee Dixon, a native of nearby Heron Lake, Minnesota, said she returned to the Iowa Great Lakes with her husband, Dr. Wade Dixon, 19 years ago. That was the year the New York Times dispatched a reporter to cover the Winter Games that featured no winter. "It was 60 degrees that year and we still had Winter Games," Dixon said.

The slow-arriving winter, one leading to January golf in parts of Siouxland, has resulted in a sheet of uneven ice across the region. Folks in Storm Lake, Iowa, this week are dealing with the tragic loss of two lives after a vehicle crashed through the ice Sunday, a heart-breaking reminder that danger lurks across these lakes.

"The ice here has spots that ranges from 12 inches to 17 inches in thickness," Zankowski reported. "But there are still open spots on the lake. The lakes this year froze at a higher water level than normal, so some spots were left open."

Tom Gustafson, 

Tom Gustafson of photographed open water on East Lake Okoboji on Saturday, a telling reminder of how ice cover this season in the Iowa Great Lakes is not consistent.

That said, the official Okoboji Winter Games outdoor ice-related activity held on Smith's Bay as well as on points around Arnolds Park and on East Lake Okoboji will go on as scheduled. This includes the popular Polar Plunge as well as softball and broom-ball tournaments. A flag football tourney on the ice near Parks Marina will go as scheduled.

"Where our Chamber events are held, we're good for foot traffic," Zankowski said. "We don't promote vehicle traffic (on the ice). The ice is varying is so many spots."

Dixon and Zankowski both mentioned a new event for 2019 that involves showing giant kites on the ice near Preservation Plaza adjacent to Arnolds Park Amusement Park. Arnolds Park Mayor Jim Hussong, of Kozy Heat, partnered with Steve Boote of Eagle Construction to sponsor and bring 30 huge kites from New Zealand for this edition (and future editions) of the University of Okoboji Winter Games. This gathering of kites, some of them measuring 30 feet in length, will offer a colorful vista on Saturday.

"Many of these big kites need a handler," said Hussong, who borrowed the idea from a celebration on Clear Lake in north-central Iowa. "We have a guy from Denver who will fly them. They'll put a spike into the ice, get them up and tie them to the ice. The really large ones will fly all day."

Additionally, a warming station on the ice by Arnolds Park Amusement Park will feature live music while offering a place for children to make and fly their own kites.

Touchstone Energy, in cooperation with Iowa Lakes Electrical Cooperative, is also bringing a hot air balloon to this spot on Saturday and will tether the balloon for yet another visual treat. "When we do the 'Burning of the Greens' on Saturday night, the balloon will be lit up," Hussong said.

Justin Wan, Sioux City Journal 


"No matter what we've done all day in past years, we make sure we're there at 6:30 p.m. Saturday for 'Burning of the Greens,'" said Dixon, who will join co-chair Brent Harris in helping register Polar Plunge participants from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Saturday.

Dixon laughed and shared an early forecast for Saturday, one calling for temperatures down around single digits. "This year, people at the Polar Plunge will jump in to WARM UP!"

Bruce R. Miller, Sioux City Journal 

A huge crowd gathered for the Polar Plunge during the 38th annual University of Okoboji Winter Games last January. Similar crowds are expected for the 39th edition of the Winter Games this weekend in the Iowa Great Lakes.

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Steve King postpones Thursday town hall, announces one in Primghar

SIOUX CITY -- U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, has announced Wednesday he will postpone one of two planned meetings, but hold his first town hall meeting of the year on Saturday in Primghar.

A morning release from King's office said the first of scheduled town hall meetings in each of the 39 Iowa 4th congressional district offices will be held in O'Brien County. The event is open to the public, and will be held for an hour, beginning at 9 a.m. at the Primghar Community Building, 215 First Street SE.

The release said the kickoff event, which had been first announced to be held on Thursday, will be postponed, due to "recently announced changes in the House of Representative’s voting schedule."

This was the first word from King's team on the timing and place of the town hall meetings, since King on Jan. 4 announced he would hold the events throughout the year. King's office and top spokespersons had not responded to a series of Journal inquiries about details for this week's meetings.

Unlike many members of Congress, the nine-term incumbent has shunned town halls in recent years, saying he feared out-of-state paid protesters would hijack the meetings and prevent district voters from asking their questions and voicing concerns. He also expressed concerns for his own safety, citing a Republican House leader who was wounded after a gunman opened fire at a baseball practice for GOP House members two years ago in suburban Virginia.

"I do meetings all over the place, with people that request them, that have policy issues that they want to discuss with community leaders. But in this climate, to advertise town hall meetings, just so that protesters have a forum, just doesn't make a lot of sense to me," King told the Journal in 2017.

In the two weeks after King made that town halls announcement, he has become part of a large national news cycle.

Republican leaders voted Jan. 14 to take away all of his assignments for the next two years. Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy cited King's comments in a Jan. 10 New York Times story that "call into question whether he will treat all Americans equally, without regard for race and ethnicity."

On Jan. 15, the House approved a resolution designed to rebuke King for the comments. The resolution called for the chamber to reject white nationalism and white supremacy as “hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States.”

Additionally, King already has a 2020 congressional opponent.That is coming from the same party, no less, as a fellow Republican, state Sen. Randy Feenstra of Hull, said two weeks ago that he's running against King.

King has pushed back heavily on the white supremacist charges.

In an email last week, he urged supporters to donate to his re-election campaign, casting himself as a victim of a cabal of the "unhinged left" and "NeverTrumpers" who are out to "destroy" him because of his unwavering opposition to illegal immigration.

In the email, King tied himself to President Donald Trump, noting the Times "relentlessly and dishonestly attacks" the Republican president and now is "coming after me by shamelessly twisting my words, quoting me out of context, and using their Leftist comrades in the media to parrot their false talking points."

In the New York Times story, King was quoted as saying, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?"

Steve King