Ora Leonard, 75, a retired nurse and the widow of a military veteran, nearly lost her Venice home because of the thousands of dollars in penalties charged to her because of a 2005 Madison County tax auction conducted by former Treasurer Fred Bathon.
Bathon's guilty plea Tuesday to a charge of rigging the county tax auction system was a dose of unexpected good news, according to Leonard.
"I'm very surprised," Leonard said. "Because I thought nothing was going to be done about it."
Ultimately, Bathon's guilty plea and acceptance of a prison sentence re-affirmed an important life lesson, she said.
"Whatever happens," Leonard said, "when you do a bad deed, you should pay for it."
Kurt Prenzler, the current Madison County treasurer, was one of the first to question the fairness of Bathon's handling of delinquent property tax auctions.
Prenzler ran against Bathon in 2006, but lost. Prenzler, a Republican, won the race for treasurer in November 2010, defeating Democrat Frank Miles, Bathon's hand-picked successor.
Prenzler's victory came two months after the News-Democrat began publishing stories that showed that Bathon had rigged the tax auction system to favor his top campaign donors, a small group of wealthy professional tax buyers.
Prenzler said his run for the treasurer's office stemmed from the warning flags he spotted during the property tax auctions Bathon conducted.
"I looked at what was happening and said, 'They can't do that,'" Prenzler said, adding he believed that property owners caught up in tax auctions conducted by Bathon paid at least $2 million a year in excessive penalty interest.
Upon taking office, Prenzler enacted a wide range of reforms to the county tax auction system, including the implementation of an automated bidding system that lowered the average interest penalty on late taxes from 18 percent to less than 4 percent.
Prenzler said he felt confident that U.S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton and federal investigators "will ensure that justice is served for the people of Madison County."
Chris Slusser, a Wood River Republican who served on the Madison County Board during the Bathon years, said he was relieved to hear about Bathon's guilty plea and agreement to cooperate with federal investigators in future investigations.
Slusser had tried to warn members of the Democratic-controlled Madison County government that something was wrong with the county tax auction system under Bathon, also a Democrat, but no one listened, he said.
"What I would say is that this is what we suspected all along and that there was some sort of collusion," said Slusser, who left the County Board in December. I'm just very grateful the federal authorities decided to take this up. ... I'm confident that everyone who was involved will have the justice coming to them."
What still disturbs Slusser is that many people in the Madison County administration knew about the misdeeds in the county tax auction system under Bathon, but did nothing to stop them.
"I don't know how they can sleep at night," he said.
Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan, a Democrat, said he is "deeply disappointed when any former or current official is charged with abusing the trust placed in them by the people who elected them to office."
He added, "Because it is incumbent upon every public official to operate with the highest ethical standards and conduct, when those standards are compromised, it is essential the matter be resolved according to our laws, ensuring the integrity of our government. Mr. Bathon's actions negatively impact the men and women -- Democrats, Republicans and independents -- who proudly, honorably and ethically serve the people at every level of government in Madison County."