Tax buyers plead guilty in rigged Madison County auction case

News-DemocratOctober 17, 2013 

Former Madison County Treasurer Fred Bathon.

STEVE NAGY/BND

— Three of the tax buyers who conspired with ex-Madison County Treasurer Fred Bathon to rig property tax auctions pleaded guilty in federal court on Thursday to one count each of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act.

John Vassen, 56, of Belleville; Scott K. McLean, 51, whose company is based in East St. Louis; and Barrett Rochman, 70, of Carbondale, each face between 10 months and 16 months in prison under sentencing guidelines.

This compares to the maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million or twice the dollar value of the defendant's illicit gains.

Vassen, McLean and Rochman acknowledged colluding with Bathon, who orchestrated a multiyear "pay-for-play" scam that cheated more than 10,000 Madison County property owners out of more than $2 million in excessive interest and penalty payments.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Williams set the sentencing hearing for all three men for Feb. 21. Chief Judge David Herndon is scheduled to preside over their hearings.

Vassen, McLean and Rochman remain free on personal recognizance bonds.

Stephen Wigginton, the U.S. attorney for Southern Illinois, declined to comment on the defendants' cases, noting that the investigation into Bathon's bid-rigging scam is still ongoing.

During his court appearance Thursday, McLean answered a series of yes-or-no questions regarding his health, mental competence of understanding of the proceedings. The hearing culminated with a single question posed by Williams.

"Did you do what the government said you did?"

"I did," McLean replied.

All three defendants, through their lawyers, declined to comment.

After McLean's hearing, Wigginton said Bathon "made it very clear to tax buyers who are charged (with criminal conduct) that if you want me to continue to oversee the auctions, and not automate it, then you need to keep me."

Vassen, a licensed attorney, acknowledged during his court appearance that "collateral consequences" from his pleading guilty to a federal felony could affect his Illinois law license.

Rochman, one of the state's most prominent tax buyers, is a longtime financial benefactor of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he graduated in 1964 with a sociology degree.

Because of his commitment to SIUC and the game of softball, the university's board of trustees in February 2003 named its new softball filed in honor of Rochman, who had pledged a "substantial gift" to the university.

Williams asked Rochman if he was pleading guilty to helping rig Madison County's tax auction because he was really guilty.

"Yes, sir, I am," Rochman said.

Bathon, 58, pleaded guilty to a single count of bid-rigging in February in federal court in East St. Louis. Bathon, who left office at the end of 2009, faces up to 10 years in prison when he appears at his sentencing hearing scheduled for Dec. 6.

Vassen's, McLean's and Rochman's guilty pleas, as well as three class action lawsuits filed against Madison County and various taxbuyers, occurred more than three years after a September 2010 series by the News-Democrat that exposed Bathon's bid-rigging scheme.

The newspaper's 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.

But the 18 percent rate is just the start. After six months, if a delinquent tax lien is not redeemed, the annual interest rate charged to the owner doubles to 36 percent. The interest rate after 30 months of nonredemption skyrockets to 108 percent, according to the stipulation of facts that each defendant signed Thursday.

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.

During Bathon's tenure as treasurer, from 1998 to 2009, McLean, Rochman and other tax buyers contributed more than $140,000 to Bathon's re-election campaigns, dwarfing the totals from other donors.

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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