- FILED UNDER
- Rekha Basu
In the spring of 2006, my husband, Rob Borsellino was going downhill fast. In a year and a half, Lou Gehrig's disease had taken most of his ability to speak, walk and eat. He could have sunk into despair, knowing that, before it was over, it would get worse. But one thing kept him going: Bob Dylan, his idol since childhood, was coming to Des Moines to play a concert in his honor. Someone who wanted to cheer Rob up had learned who his favorite musician was - then hired Dylan to play a benefit for ALS.
That someone was Bob Knapp, who on Friday pleaded guilty in federal court to illegally removing asbestos from the Equitable Building, which he owned, during a renovation between 2005 and 2008. He could face 33 to 41 months in federal prison.
I've been following the story with a heavy heart, struggling to reconcile the generous, compassionate man I invited to speak at my husband's memorial with one who would flout environmental laws and put workers' lives at risk. He admitted he didn't ensure that workers removing asbestos-containing materials were wearing proper protective gear. He also didn't stop renovation and demolition in 2007, when ordered to by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The U.S. attorney handling the case said because of it, some workers could still develop cancer.
I called Bob this week and asked if we could talk. On Tuesday we sat down in the office he still maintains at the Valley West Inn, which he once owned. With sentencing ahead, he was careful about what he said, but acknowledged: "I cut corners where you shouldn't."
"It was stupid," he said. "It was something that never should have happened."
But had he knowingly put lives at risk? I pressed. "Absolutely not," he insisted. "I would never, ever deliberately do that." He said he had a great relationship with most of the workers, calling them "almost like family." One, he said, had phoned the day before to see how he was.
So, you try to imagine how something like this goes down: Someone balks at spending the money and following the protocols for a problem he or she didn't create, thinking it can be made to go away. But it just gets worse.
"Money means nothing," said Knapp in recounting all he has lost since this happened: A 40-year marriage, the goodwill of his children, his investments. He has so far paid $100,000 of a record $500,000 state civil fine for mishandling asbestos removal. And indeed, someone who would pay Dylan to play with no promise of a return, couldn't care that much about money.
I had never met Bob Knapp before he began planning the concert, and we learned quickly not to talk politics, as his conservative views and my liberal ones clashed. He and Rob hadn't known each other well, either, though Bob really connected with him after Rob wrote a column about Bob's son. Brian died in 1987 at age 15 of leukemia. Born blind, Brian was a musical prodigy who once performed with Johnny Cash. At first paralyzed by grief, Bob had channeled his energy into co-founding a music publishing company called "Brian's Dream." It is Brian's drive and motivation that he credits with his business success.
"You know how I am," Bob told me yesterday. "I'm a lot like your husband was." I know this much: Both were largely self-made men who took pride in that fact. Bob once boasted to my son that he had graduated 25th from the bottom in his high school class of 600-some. Both Rob and Bob had big hearts and salty senses of humor.
The Dylan concert was April 21, 2006. Rob died less than a month later. Many of us believed he held on for it by sheer will - and that we owe that extra time to Bob Knapp.
That's not to undermine the seriousness of what he has done. People are complicated, capable at once of great kindness and generosity, and great foolishness and wrongdoing. I just hope that the 61-year-old, who has known success and tragedy, acclaim and disgrace, will once again face something really bad head on, and force some good to come of it.