Madison County treasurer: St. Clair County has similar tax sale problems

News-DemocratMay 30, 2014 

Madison County Treasurer Kurt Prenzler

— St. Clair County's tax-buying system might be similar to the scandal in Madison County that sent three people to federal prison, according Madison County Treasurer Kurt Prenzler.

But St. Clair County Treasurer Charles Suarez says there is nothing wrong with the process, and he said Prenzler is politically motivated.

Prenzler, a Republican, says he found patterns in St. Clair County mirroring a taxbuying scheme that unfolded in Madison County between 2005 and 2009.

"Unfortunately, there are definite patterns when comparing the history of tax sales in St. Clair County and Madison County," Prenzler said.

The Madison County sale of delinquent property taxes at that time forced more than 10,000 property owners to pay excessive interest rates, benefiting taxbuyers, who contributed heavily to former Madison County Treasurer Fred Bathon, according to federal court records.

The Belleville News-Democrat was the first to report on the Madison County taxbuying scheme. St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly said no law enforcement agency has been alerted to any criminal conduct in the treasurer's office whatsoever nor have any allegations surfaced during the years of the Bathon investigation.

Suarez, a Democrat, said there is no merit to Prenzler's allegations. Suarez is the brother-in-law of Marleen Suarez, Prenzler's Democratic opponent in the upcoming November general election.

"My tax sale has always been a true reverse auction. I've never prohibited anybody from bidding or bidding lower," Suarez said. "There's more than enough proof if you look at the townships and interest rates over the years."

Prenzler said his allegations were not politically motivated, but stemmed from his belief that low penalty rates help people stay in their homes.

Suarez said Prenzler hoped to associate the Suarez name with Bathon's actions in the coming election along with deflecting attention from critics accusing Prenzler of mismanaging county investments and Madison County tax sales.

"Why now? I think its a ploy..." Suarez said. "Why wouldn't he use this to deflect from his record? Why not hit a double with tying the Suarez name to Bathon, and how convenient his opponent is also a Suarez?"

Marleen Suarez said in a prepared statement that Prenzler spent time and money forming a political attack instead of fixing his own issues in Madison County.

"Prenzler has to generate some type of scandal to deflect attention away from his own pathetic record," Marleen Suarez said. "So, Prenzler chose to attack someone with an unblemished record of decades of public service just because Charles and I share a last name."

The tax auction is supposed to operate as a reverse auction, where tax buyers start at one interest rate and then bid downward how much homeowners would pay to investors who buy their back taxes. Bathon orchestrated selling the delinquent properties to taxbuyers for the maximum 18 percent interest rate in exchange for campaign donations. Bathon and three taxbuyers, John Vassen, Barrett Rochman and Scott McLean, were convicted in the bid-rigging scheme and are now serving prison sentences.

Prenzler said his review of St. Clair County tax sales was spurred by taxbuyer Ken Brosh. Brosh, a dentist in Mascoutah, who asked him to investigate after the scheme in Madison County came to light.

Brosh has been critical of St. Clair County officials in the past. He accused county officials of cutting him out of a federally paid dental voucher program in 2012 after criticizing the county for allegedly wasting money.

"I'm not one of their (St. Clair County official) favorites because I'm not a pay-to-play guy," Brosh said.

Brosh said he noticed unethical behavior at tax auctions in St. Clair and described Prenzler as a "beacon of hope" for taxpayers.

Suarez said Brosh won numerous bids during the tax sales of 2007 and 2008 at the maximum penalty rate of 18 percent. He added officials with the St. Clair County State's Attorney's Office have approved the sales' procedures and regularly monitor the tax sales.

According to figures provided by Prenzler, the average penalty rate in St. Clair County was about 16 percent in 2007 and 2008 under Suarez. The rate was about 6 percent in 2006 and about 8-10 percent from 2009 to 2012.

Prenzler also said his review found the three imprisoned taxbuyers have given in total about $30,100 to Suarez's political committee and about $31,400 to the St. Clair County Democratic Committee.

Suarez has served as county treasurer since 1994.

"I think it's unprofessional that another county treasurer would come into a different county and make statements such as those, especially when he personally has never ever sat in on my tax sale and never ever discussed my tax sale," Suarez said.

"I don't know how he has the time. I have a responsibility to St. Clair County. I don't have enough time to worry about Madison County. All I can do is run this office as professionally as I can."

Bathon was able to rig the bidding through verbal bids. Madison County's tax sale is now automated, but St. Clair's is not.

Rodger Cook, Suarez's Republican opponent in the November election, said if elected, he would ensure the tax sale became automated electronically instead of the current auction-style with participants verbally announcing their bids.

"It's the way all the counties in the state ought to run. It makes the political process no longer a factor," Cook said, noting the average rate of the most recent tax sale in Madison County was about 1.5 percent.

Cook, who served as mayor of Belleville from 1993-97, said high penalty rates cost the local economy millions of dollars.

Suarez said he opposed automating the tax sales because shifting the responsibility to an outside company was an unnecessary cost since the sales were "truly reverse auctions."

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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