What did Madison County leaders know about former Treasurer Fred Bathon's bid-rigging scam, and when did they know it?
Those questions burn at the heart of a counter-claim that tax buyer Robert Luken, of Alton, has filed in a lawsuit against Bathon concerning liability for his bid-rigging scheme.
The scheme forced 10,000 Madison County property owners into paying excessive interest rates and penalties from 2005 to 2009.
Luken, of Alton, claims that five current Madison County leaders -- including Board Chairman Alan Dunstan and State's Attorney Thomas Gibbons -- engaged "in a conspiracy of silence to do nothing" to correct Bathon's violation of laws governing delinquent property tax sales, despite warnings from Luken that Bathon had rigged the sales to benefit his top political donors, according to the counter-claim, which was filed April 21 in Madison County Circuit Court.
Besides Dunstan and Gibbons, Luken names as counter-defendants Circuit Clerk Mark Von Nida, who was county clerk at the time of Bathon's scheme, and county Judge William Mudge, who was county state's attorney at the time of the scheme, which unfolded between 2005 and 2009.
"Luken protested to many employees and officials about the fixed sales, including Mark Von Nida and his personnel. Nothing was done to stop or correct the procedure," according to Luken's counter-claim.
Dunstan, Mudge and Von Nida could not be reached for comment. Kurt Prenzler, who was named in his capacity as current county treasurer, declined to comment.
Gibbons called Luken's allegations "absolutely ridiculous" and said they made no sense.
Furthermore, Luken's claims fail to explain how Gibbons could have had involvement in Bathon's scheme, Gibbons said.
"It just goes to show you that for anyone trying to put the taxpayers on the hook, to pay for the damages caused by the criminal conspiracy, it just continues to get more ridiculous," he said. "To claim that there was some knowledge, while this conspiracy was ongoing, it's completely baseless."
John Dale Stobbs, Luken's attorney, did not return a call seeking comment.
Also named in the counter-claim are the imprisoned Bathon and three taxbuyers who pleaded guilty to conspiring with him: John Vassen, of Belleville; Scott McLean, of East St. Louis; and Barrett Rochman, of Makanda.
Other parties named in the counter-claim are tax buyers Dennis Ballinger, of Decatur, and Scott Sieron, who does business in Belleville.
Bathon, who pleaded guilty to a federal bid-rigging charge, is serving a 30-month prison term at the minimum security federal prison camp in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Vassen, McLean and Rochman have begun serving prison terms of between 16 months and two years at the minimum security federal prison camp in Marion.
Guilty pleas by Bathon, Vassen, McLean and Rochman -- 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.
Vassen, McLean and Rochman were three of Bathon's biggest donors to his re-election campaigns. Bathon, in turn, was known for his generous support of fellow Democratic office-holders with money from his re-election fund coffers.
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at email@example.com or 618-239-2533.