Bathon, despite pleading guilty, still draws $90,000 pension

News-DemocratOctober 26, 2013 

Former Madison County Treasurer Fred Bathon.

STEVE NAGY/BND

— Ex-Madison County Treasurer Fred Bathon continues to draw his $90,000-per-year state pension eight months after pleading guilty in federal court to orchestrating a scheme to rip-off Madison County residents.

Bathon, 58, served 11 years as county treasurer, retiring in December 2009, and as county auditor for a decade before his stint as treasurer. Bathon's many years as a county employee is why each month he receives $7,506 from the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, and why he will continue to receive that amount until he is sentenced for his crime.

The fact Bathon is still receiving his pension -- while thousands of county taxpayers whom Bathon cheated have so far received no restitution -- is a source of frustration for state Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon.

It rankles Kay that Bathon, formerly a major player in the dominant Democratic Party, has so far received $346,894 in state pension benefits since his retirement in late 2009, according to information IMRF provided to the News-Democrat in response to a state Freedom of Information Act request.

"I'm aghast that nearly $350,000 has accrued to his account," Kay said. "We find a way to pay a pension under the scenario of a guilty plea, but we can't find a way to compensate the people who've really been hurt. And if that's not nonsense I don't know what is."

Kathy O'Brien, IMRF's general counsel, said state law is clear: It requires that a state pension terminates for an elected officeholder guilty of crimes connected to his official duties on the day of sentencing, not at conviction.

Under Illinois law, "a conviction doesn't happen until the court enters the order of conviction," O'Brien said. "And we don't do that until the sentencing date."

Kay vowed to file a bill in Illinois House that terminates a public official's state pension on the day of a guilty plea, and not on sentencing.

Bathon could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Clyde Kuehn, declined to comment.

Bathon faces up to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to rigging the county's annual auction of delinquent tax liens.

Bathon's bid rigging forced the owners of more than 10,000 Madison County property parcels to pay millions of dollars in excessive interest penalties and fees. In return for favoring a select group of tax buyers, Bathon received tens of thousands of dollars in donations to his re-election campaigns.

Bathon, however, could receive substantially less time in prison because of his cooperation with federal investigators.

Bathon's cooperation with the federal officials is a key reason a judge approved motions that the former treasurer filed to delay his sentencing hearing -- from May 21 to Aug. 30, and then from Aug. 30 to Dec. 6, court records show.

The six-month extension in his sentencing hearing resulted in the state paying Bathon more than $45,000 in IMRF pension benefits, state records show.

On Oct. 17, three of the tax buyers who had conspired with Bathon to rig the auctions -- John Vassen, 56, of Belleville; Scott K. McLean, 51, whose company is based in East St. Louis; and Barrett Rochman, 70, of Carbondale -- each pleaded guilty in federal court to a single count of violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

The three each face 10 to 16 months in prison during their sentencing hearings scheduled for February.

Federal prosecutors have indicated their investigation is ongoing.

The fact that Bathon continues to draw a pension is "disgusting," said Madison County Board member Jamie Goggin, R-Edwardsville.

"Abusing the public is one of the worst things someone can do. Especially the way these people were hurt."

County board member Michael "Mick" Madison, R-Bethalto, said the fact that Bathon continues to receive a state pension after entering a felony guilty plea illustrates a key problem in the state.

"The people who do things wrong in Illinois seem to keep getting rewarded for it, and we all keep having to pay after they put one over on us," Madison said.

Bathon, Vassen's, McLean's and Rochman's guilty pleas, as well as three class action lawsuits filed against Madison County and various other tax buyers, 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.

Public officials like Bathon, who have preyed on their own constituents, are a key reason the state of Illinois is saddled with a reputation as one of the most corrupt states in America, according to James B. Nowlan, a retired University of Illinois political science professor.

Nowlan has studied the state's history of political corruption, including the corruption convictions of former governors George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich. Last year, he co-authored a research paper that indicates Illinois is third most corrupt state in the country.

Illinois is ranked third in per-capita convictions for corruption.

Leading this dubious pack are the District of Columbia and Louisiana, according to Nowlan's research.

"Illinois does stand out, and it's a stark contrast to most of the states around us, as well as to the nation as a whole," said Nowlan, the vice chairman of the Illinois Executive Ethics Commission.

One theory as to why Illinois is so relatively corrupt centers on a political "system in which people can become ensconced in office for decades and that maybe lends itself to this sense of power and the thought one can get away with something," Nowlan said.

Nowlan said it's rare that people seek elective office with plans to carry out corrupt acts.

"I think something must happen once a person gets in office. Maybe it's a mix of seeing one's opportunities and taking them, which is what this treasurer did clearly," Nowlan said of Bathon. "Maybe it's a sense of adventure in the use of power for personal gain."

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

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