Facing a room full of angry constituents Thursday night, federally indicted Crestwood Mayor Lou Presta backtracked on plans to resign from his top village job and accept a new, unelected position in the southwestern suburb that would have paid him the same salary.
Two days after saying in a Tuesday letter to village trustees that he needed to step down this week due to “some severe health problems,” a visibly irritated Presta told a packed Crestwood Civic Center that he was postponing his mayoral resignation plans indefinitely “based on the decisions of the board, my attorney and my doctors.”
After a tense village board meeting, the 71-year-old said he actually notified trustees of his change of heart on Wednesday — a day after sending the letter — but he declined to comment on what changed in the intervening 24 hours to make him stay in office.
“They told me to hold on,” Presta said of his colleagues, attorney and doctor. He wouldn’t offer any other details.
Several vocal supporters in the crowd cheered and applauded his decision to stay in office.
But he announced his surprise reversal after a number of residents harangued the three-term mayor during public comments for remarks he made to a Daily Southtown reporter earlier this week saying the village would create the new $65,000 salaried position of “economic development director” for the village of 11,000 — and that he’d fill it.
“Whoever heard of a person being indicted — soon to be convicted — and then handed a $65,000 job?” said John Toscas, a Crestwood resident who launched a failed bid to unseat Presta in April’s municipal election.
Presta handily won that contest despite being hit with federal bribery and tax-related charges the previous summer in connection with a sweeping public corruption investigation.
State law prohibits anyone convicted “of malfeasance in office, bribery, or other infamous crime” from holding municipal office unless they successfully petition the governor for that right. Presta hasn’t been convicted of anything, but he’s expected to enter a guilty plea in federal court Oct. 29, his lawyer said last month.
Presta declined to comment on his criminal case Thursday.
“I don’t know anybody who steps out of a job when they’re ill, then steps into another job that pays the same amount,” another Crestwood resident told him. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“It’s unconscionable that this is even a consideration,” another said.
The village board tabled the motion to create the economic development position Thursday, prompting a miffed Presta to declare: “This is only a vote to create a position. It’s not giving nobody the job.”
After the meeting, village trustee Linda Madlener said she was “not a happy camper” when she saw the newly created position included in this week’s meeting agenda.
“We did not know anything about that. We’ve not had any discussions about that,” Madlener said. “It just doesn’t make sense for us as a small town. We don’t need an economic developer.”
Madlener rejected Presta’s claim that he had consulted with trustees about his flip-flop on resigning, and she declined to comment on whether Presta is still fit to serve as mayor.
“I really don’t know what went into that decision. There’s a lot we need to discuss,” she said.
Presta was first elected in 2013 after about two decades as a trustee. He also made an unsuccessful run for the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 2018.
That was the same year he allegedly accepted an envelope stuffed with $5,000 in cash from a representative of the politically connected red-light camera company SafeSpeed, the Sun-Times previously reported.
In an indictment filed last summer, federal prosecutors said Presta sought and received benefits from SafeSpeed representatives while the company sought to expand its services in Crestwood.
Prosecutors also said Presta had been interviewed by federal authorities Sept. 26, 2019, amid a series of raids by federal agents that included the offices of then-state Sen. Martin Sandoval at the state Capitol in Springfield.
During Presta’s interview, the feds say he denied receiving any gifts or cash campaign contributions from SafeSpeed. Then, when shown a recording of a March 7, 2018, meeting at which the feds say he accepted the cash, Presta allegedly lied and said there was no money in the envelope.
Presta faces charges of bribery, lying to the FBI and the IRS and filing false income tax returns for the years 2015 and 2018, plus failing to file an income tax return for 2014.
Despite the indictment, Presta was handily elected to a third term in April, with 62% of the vote in the village of about 11,000.
Last month, his defense attorney asked a federal judge to cancel a trial scheduled for December because Presta was expected to plead guilty. His change-of-plea hearing is scheduled for Oct. 29.