Fred Bathon cut a figure in metro-east politics unlike few politicians before him.
Bathon served 11 years as Madison County treasurer, retiring in 2009, and another decade before that as county auditor.
His career followed a trajectory marked by hard work, public quarrels and tragedy. On May 17, he is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court after he pleaded guilty to conspiring to rig the bidding on the property tax auctions in Madison County. He faces a possible 30 to 41 months in prison.
After a childhood spent in an Alton orphanage, Bathon rose to become a key player in Democratic circles. His admirers describe him as independent and passionate, a tireless worker who devoted countless hours to improving the subdivisions where he lived in Glen Carbon and Florida.
But Bathon, 58, also amassed critics who say he has a hair-trigger temper that could detonate over the pettiest disagreement or perceived slight.
Rick Kinworthy, of Granite City, described one of Bathon's biggest flaws as a need to control the people around him.
Kinworthy, a former brother-in-law of Bathon's, said that in 1999 Bathon took total control of his and his wife Lynn's finances when Kinworthy got into financial trouble.
In 2004, however, Bathon ended all contact with Kinworthy when the latter obtained a credit card without Bathon's knowledge, Kinworthy said.
"He was like, 'What the hell are you doing with that credit card?' Kinworthy said. "I said, 'Look, I make enough money, it gets paid off every month.' He was just moaning and cussing. I almost punched him out. He wanted to control everything."
When Kinworthy's wife Lynn passed away in 2011, neither Bathon nor his wife Terri -- Lynn's sister -- attended the funeral, Kinworthy said.
But Tim Lupton, who served as the president of the Glen Carbon subdivision homeowners group before Bathon took over, described the former Madison County treasurer as someone who "could be very likable...," and if there was "an issue he was passionate about, he would certainly defend that position, and sometimes take it to a higher level."
A far different Fred Bathon was on display nearly two weeks ago in a federal courtroom in East St. Louis.
With shoulders stooped and eyes downcast, Bathon looked somber and subdued as he stood before a federal magistrate judge.
Bathon was in the courtroom to plead guilty in connection with late property tax auctions he oversaw as county treasurer from 2005 to 2009. Bathon's conducting of the sales unfairly forced thousands of property taxpayers to pay millions of dollars in inflated interest payments to a small cadre of Bathon's top campaign donors, prosecutors said.
U.S. Magistrate Steve Williams asked Bathon whether he was on any medication.
"I have for about 17 years, for depression," Bathon said.
"Mr. Bathon, how do you feel physically today?"
"Other than my arthritis, I feel fine," Bathon replied. Bathon then said yes to a plea agreement with federal prosecutors that would cost him his $88,000-per-year public pension.
In exchange, Bathon agreed to help prosecutors build cases against his alleged co-conspirators in the bid-rigging scheme.
Until his sentencing in May, Bathon remains free on a bond order that does not restrict his travels. Bathon continues to live in Glen Carbon, though he sold his Glen Carbon home at 18 Timber Bluff last month for $425,000, county records show.
Bathon also continues to sit on the homeowners association board of the Eagle's Nest on Marco Beach resort community, at Marco Island, Fla.
Bathon, through his attorney, Clyde Kuehn, declined to comment for this article.
Lupton, the former president of Bathon's subdivision homeowners group, acknowledged that Bathon had a polarizing effect on his neighbors.
"I think Fred had his clique. He had certain people that really agreed with him or that gelled together," Lupton recalled. "And there were other people who didn't care for him probably because they didn't care for his politics or maybe his personality."
Bathon generated public controversy even as tragedy hit his life repeatedly.
In July 1999, 17-year-old Jessica Bathon, the youngest of Bathon's three children, died in a golf cart accident at Granite City golf course.
The girl's death delayed a Madison County grand jury probing allegations that Bathon had required his employees to pay "lugs," or mandatory political contributions while he served as county auditor. The panel decided against issuing charges. Bathon said the only money collected in his office was a for a flower and gift fund.
In 2003, a Granite City woman accused Bathon of battery, claiming that he pushed her while Bathon was trying to figure out who had hit his daughter's car. Bathon denied the charge, and was cleared of it at trial.
In November 2004, Bathon's 3-month-old grandson died during his first hours in daycare on the first day his mother Rachel -- Bathon's older daughter-- returned to work from maternity leave.
"It's been tragedy after tragedy for that poor man, for Fred and his family," Steve Nonn, the Madison County coroner, said at the time.
In October 2009, soon after he announced he was retiring from the treasurer's job, Bathon described as his greatest accomplishment, "the one I'll leave as my legacy," the launch of a four-payment plan that year that allows taxpayers to make four payments instead of two.
Bathon told a reporter at the time that taxpayers "are just so grateful for that," and that while he lacked the authority to reduce their taxes, "I certainly could give them more time."
Meanwhile, according to his plea deal, Bathon was secretly colluding with unnamed conspirators to force many of those same taxpayers he claimed to be helping to pay millions of dollars in inflated interest penalty fees.
A 2010 News-Democrat probe of Bathon's handling of the tax auctions showed that in 2008, when 2,568 tax bills were sold, the winning bid was 18 percent on all but eight pieces of property. The 18 percent rate is the maximum allowed under state law.
Bathon steered winning bids to campaign contributors by awarding them prime seats at the annual tax auctions. Bathon ordered the auctioneer, his employee, "to disperse winning bids between his largest campaign contributors," according to his plea agreement.
For all the criticism leveled at Bathon, however, he has won lots of praise for his work on behalf the homeowners groups to which he has belonged.
The president of the Marco Island, Fla., group on whose board Bathon sits, singled out Bathon for special praise, according to a 2011 edition of the "Eagle's Nest Sand Script," the association newsletter.
Bob Kelsey, the group president at the time, wrote that Bathon deserved "a special shout-out" for his help in completing an addition to the community.
"I do not know as many people who would be as committed as Fred," Kelsey wrote. "He worked 10-hour days, received no pay, coordinated disputes and made sure we got 'a model unit built to our best interests and specifications.' Well done, Fred; truly appreciated."
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at email@example.com or 618-239-2533.