News-Democrat reporters win award for investigation of delinquent tax sale system

News-Democrat --February 10, 2011 

Brian Brueggemann and Mike Fitzgerald, reporters for the Belleville News-Democrat, will receive McClatchy Co. President's Awards for their 2010 investigation into Madison County's delinquent property-tax sale system, the company announced Wednesday.

The BND is one of 30 daily newspapers owned by The McClatchy Co.

The annual President's Awards are the highest employee honors given by McClatchy. Staff members from 11 newspapers will receive President's Awards this year for journalism excellence in 2010, McClatchy said in its announcement.

The company cited Brueggemann's and Fitzgerald's "relentless reporting" in their investigation of the delinquent tax sale system in Madison County under former Treasurer Fred Bathon.

In Illinois, the tax sale system is supposed to work like this: Investors, known as tax buyers, may purchase a person's delinquent property tax debt. The tax buyers make money by charging the property owners a penalty interest rate. If the property owner doesn't pay the tax debt and penalty, the tax buyer can claim the property.

In Madison County, Brueggemann and Fitzgerald found that the Treasurer's Department under Bathon sold delinquent property tax bills in 2006 and 2007 to tax buyers for the highest allowable interest rate -- 18 percent -- in contrast to other Illinois counties that sold delinquent tax bills for interest penalties as low as 2 percent. The reporters also found that many of these same tax buyers contributed heavily to Bathon's re-election committee.

Brueggemann's and Fitzgerald's work prompted state and federal investigations and state legislative proposals aimed at protecting taxpayers.

"They took a very dry and convoluted topic and made it highly readable every step of the way," the President's Awards contest judges said. "This is investigative work of the highest caliber."

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