Madison County prosecutor seeks to keep taxpayers from paying for Bathon's crimes

News-DemocratMarch 30, 2014 

— Madison County taxpayers have been hurt once already because of the tax-buying scam organized by imprisoned ex-Treasurer Fred Bathon.

Now Tom Gibbons, the county state's attorney, wants to keep county taxpayers from paying a second time.

Gibbons is asking a Madison County judge to dismiss the county and various current elected leaders named as defendants from the combined class action lawsuit that resulted when three separate class actions were merged a few weeks ago.

Gibbons had already succeeded in getting the county dismissed as a defendant from one of the class action lawsuits before all three were combined. Now he wants to do the same thing for the newly merged lawsuit.

"And so we're going to look to enforce that order and that finding uniformly," Gibbons said, "so that the taxpayers aren't on the hook for any more legal fees, and certainly aren't on the hook for any damages here."

Don Weber, one of the plaintiff attorneys in the newly combined class action lawsuit, agreed that Madison County taxpayers shouldn't pay for the misdeeds of Bathon and his co-conspirators.

So far, those co-conspirators consist of a group of three tax buyers who've pleaded guilty to helping Bathon rig the tax auctions, forcing property owners to pay millions of dollars in excessive interest fees on late tax bills during the years of the scam -- 2005 to 2009.

"I believe that the tax buyers and Fred Bathon have enough money to make restitution without resorting to making the taxpayers pay for it," Weber said.

What's more, "The federal convictions obviously help this lawsuit on the issue of liability," Weber said.

Weber noted that the county has $2 million in insurance bonds to cover claims arising from misconduct of Bathon and other public officials. In addition, the tax buyers who conspired with Bathon had accrued significant profits because of their misdeeds.

Makanda businessman Barrett Rochman, 71, who was sentenced to 16 months in federal prison last week for his role in Bathon's scheme, alone netted $1 million in profits from the four years he took part in the scheme, according to federal prosecutors.

One way or another, "I believe the victims will be compensated through our lawsuit," Weber said.

Bathon, 59, in January began serving a 30-month sentence at a federal prison camp in Terre Haute, Ind., after pleading guilty to rigging the bidding on delinquent property tax liens for 10,000 property owners from 2005-09 in exchange for campaign donations.

Three of Bathon's biggest campaign donors -- tax buyers Scott McLean, John Vassen and Rochman -- acknowledged conspiring with Bathon in return for Bathon agreeing to award them the winning bids on late tax liens at the maximum interest rate of 18 percent.

McLean, whose tax-buying business is based in East St. Louis, and Vassen, of Belleville, were sentenced last month to prison terms of 18 months and two years, respectively.

A key issue in the federal prosecutions of Bathon and the three tax buyers has centered on the question of how to set up a restitution system for their victims.

Federal prosecutors have argued for more than a year that setting up such a system would be impractical. Why? Because of the complexity and scope of the problem of trying to determine the financial losses suffered by thousands of individual Madison County property owners.

U.S. District Judge David Herndon, who oversaw the sentencings of Bathon and the three tax buyers, sided with the federal government. During Rochman's sentencing hearing, Herndon said he believed that "at this point the victims will not be compensated with any degree of certainty."

But both Madison County Treasurer Kurt Prenzler and attorney John Rogers, who represented Rochman, have both stated that setting up a restitution system would be a relatively straightforward process.

Gibbons, the county state's attorney, said he believed such a restitution system could be set up, too.

"I've seen the argument made there is no practical way to do it, and then I've seen at least one of the plaintiff attorneys claim it would be very simple," he said. "I tend to think that neither of those two things could be true. It could neither be absolutely simple (nor) absolutely complicated."

But if the court were to force the lawsuit defendants to hire someone to calculate the damages owed to the scam's victims, "I think at some point there's a way to do it," Gibbons said. "If we can put a man on the moon ...You can do anything with enough drive and will."

Weber, the plaintiff attorney, agreed that the level of damages owed to victims could be calculated accurately on a reasonable basis

"And I believe that a just result would be for us to show some rational measure of damages, and it's got to be up to the defendants to show they're paying too much," Weber said.

No matter what, he said, "I will be happy to let a jury sort out the damages."

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

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