Four years after it began, the federal investigation that sent ex-Madison County Treasurer Fred Bathon to prison, along with three accomplices, for corrupting the county tax auction system has apparently wrapped up.
The office of Steve Wigginton, the U.S. attorney for Southern Illinois, has notified at least three county treasurers across Illinois that documents and other evidence they had earlier turned over for the probe are no longer needed because it has closed.
Kurt Prenzler, the Madison County treasurer, said he was told last month by an assistant U.S. attorney in Wigginton’s office the tax auction documents he turned over are no longer needed.
Steven Weinhoeft, the assistant U.S. attorney who led the Bathon probe, informed Prenzler of this situation a few weeks ago, Prenzler said.
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Weinhoeft wanted to know if Prenzler wished to have the documents returned or preferred to have the U.S. attorney destroy them, Prenzler said.
“Essentially, the message was the investigation is complete or finished or closed,” Prenzler said.
Prenzler plans to preserve the records as part of a class action lawsuit against the county, several county officials, Bathon and some of the tax buyers convicted of rigging Madison County tax auctions between early 2005 and December 2009 — when Bathon abruptly quit his job as treasurer.
Dan Welch, the Champaign County treasurer, said a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Fairview Heights called a month ago and left a voice mail message pertaining to a training manual that Welch had provided.
The voice mail from special agent Joseph Murphy stated “that the investigation is wrapped up,” Welch said. “And they had this material I had provided them. Did I want them to return it or destroy it? I said go ahead, destroy it. It wasn’t important.”
Victoria Harper, the Fulton County treasurer, said she received a call from a U.S. Marshals Service agent regarding documents she had turned over, including a videotape of an annual tax auction she had conducted in Fulton County.
“They said they were done with the investigation that involved the information I had sent to them,” Harper said. “So I don’t know any other details, whether they were going on with something else, or if it was totally dismissed.”
Jim Porter, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, declined to confirm or deny that the tax buyer’s probe has concluded.
“The only statement we would have is we would not comment on whether or not in any particular case and certainly not in any high profile type of case,” Porter said. “So basically our statement would be, we have no comment about any on-going investigation as to whether its open or closed or what’s happening.”
Bathon, who pleaded guilty to a federal bid-rigging charge, in January 2014 began serving a 30-month prison term at the minimum security federal prison camp in Terre Haute, Ind.
Bathon’s bid-rigging scheme, under which he conspired with prominent tax buyers to rig property tax auctions in return for campaign contributions, forced 10,000 Madison County property owners into paying excessive interest rates and penalties from 2005 to 2009 on their delinquent taxes.
Tax buyers John Vassen, Scott McLean and Barrett Rochman — Bathon’s co-conspirators — last year 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 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 non-redemption 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2533.