A St. Clair County judge on Thursday dismissed three charges against a St. Clair County Board of Review member who was accused of taking a bribe to lower someone’s tax assessment.
And Circuit Judge Randall Kelley found Michael Crockett Jr. not guilty on two other charges of forgery and official misconduct related to that forgery.
Kelley said, there was “not a scintilla of proof.”
After the verdict, Crockett said he was never interviewed by a prosecutor, federal or state agent related to the charge. He continued to work at the board of review, even after the charges that arose out of conduct dating back to 2014.
“Because I was a public official, I had to prove I was innocent,” Crockett said.
The case evolved from a federal investigation into taxes.
Crockett, a Democrat, took the stand and testified during the bench trial Thursday.
“I stand by the decision I made. I stood by it then. I stand by it now,” Crockett said, referring to reducing the assessment at 3330 and 3338 Camp Jackson Road in Cahokia, the site of A&E Auto Sales.
Rodney Fults, the owner of A&E, testified Thursday morning that he filed paperwork with the board of review after he received the tax assessment on his car lot, then he called Crockett. After Crockett looked at the property, Fults said he gave Crockett $500 in an envelope and said, “For your campaign.”
According to Fults, Crockett responded that he “didn’t have to do that.”
“I haven’t bribed anybody,” Fults testified.
Marni Barron, who was then married to Fults but has since divorced him, testified under questioning from Assistant State’s Attorney Daniel Lewis that Fults altered appraisals for the property using a copy machine and Wite-Out so he wouldn’t have to pay for a new appraisal. Baron told the judge that she saw Fults take $500 out of the cash drawer and put it in an envelope.
“He said he was going to pay Mike Crockett to get his taxes lowered,” she said.
The forgery and official misconduct charges that survived Kelley’s directed verdict were based on copies of those appraisals that were found, undated, in the Board of Assessment’s files.
When Crockett and Fults walked out of the car lot’s office, Baron testified that Crockett had the envelope.
Under questioning from Crockett’s defense attorney, John Baricevic, Fults testified that his car lot was located in an area prone to flooding and surrounded by “one of the highest crime areas in the country.”
Baricevic pointed out that Fults’ tax bill went up from 2012 to 2013, even with the lowered assessment. County records showed that he paid $7,165.96 in 2013 after the adjusted assessment.
FBI agent Charles Willenborg testified Crockett’s arrest came after a review of tax information. He further testified that there was no record of Fults ever making a campaign contribution to Crockett.
Board of Review Chief Deputy Patricia Boze testified the initial assessment was done Jan. 17, 2014, but was altered Feb. 19, 2014, at the board of review’s recommendation.
After prosecutors finished presenting their case, Kelley granted a defense motion to dismiss charges of bribery and official misconduct against Crockett.
“There’s no way I can find that the state has met its burden of proof on those charges,” Kelley said.
Then trial then resumed, but only on the charge of forgery and the resulting official misconduct.
Crockett, 55, of Millstadt, was charged in December, along with nine others, on corruption counts. According to the complaint, he “formed an act of excess of his lawful authority, in that in exchange for U.S. currency, he assisted in reducing property taxes on the land located at 3330-3338 Camp Jackson Road, Cahokia.” His arrest was the result of a federal and state investigation.
During his closing argument, Lewis said Fults admitted to a “fair amount of criminal conduct” during his interviews with federal agents. He received immunity from prosecution for his cooperation.
“We hold our public officials to a high standard and hope that they can live up to it,” Lewis said.
But Baricevic retorted that Crockett’s reputation was harmed by a baseless prosecution.
“This court can’t give him back his reputation but you can find him not guilty,” Baricevic said.
In rendering his verdict, Kelley said public officials are and should be held to a higher standard, including prosecutors who should not base criminal charges on “speculation and innuendo.”