Controversy and tensions surrounded Madison County government Thursday, as Democrat County Board members called again for an investigation of Treasurer Kurt Prenzler, while his political ally disrupted their press conference.
Standing with finance committee chairman Jack Minner and other board members, Kelly Tracy (D-Marine) renewed her call for an investigation of Prenzler, a Republican, and his ties to longtime Republican ally Don Weber, an attorney and retired judge.
During the last election cycle, Tracy called for an investigation into the sale of delinquent taxes on property belonging to Weber and his former wife to a friend at zero percent interest prior to the general tax sale, and not subject to the usual bidding process.
At the time, attorneys for the Madison County State’s Attorney’s Office stated they had advised Prenzler that the Weber tax sale was not legal and should not be conducted. Prenzler said he still believes that the sale was legal. However, no such no-bid sales have taken place since then, he said.
Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons said after Tracy requested an investigation last year, he referred the issue to outside agencies, as it would be a conflict of interest for his office to investigate any county official.
More recently, Prenzler stated that he believed the county should pay off a class-action lawsuit regarding the illegal tax sales conducted by his Democratic predecessor, Fred Bathon. Bathon recently was released from federal prison, having served two and a half years on corruption charges.
The lawsuit representing the property owners who were cheated in Bathon’s tax sales is filed against the county, Bathon and the tax buyers who benefited from the rigged auctions. Prenzler said he believed the county should pay off the lawsuit.
“It’s been nearly 10 years for these victims to receive justice and they are still waiting,” Prenzler said.
Most of the other county officials, including County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan, a Democrat, say Bathon and the tax buyers should have to compensate the people who were cheated. At the time, Dunstan said it was not fair for the Madison County taxpayers to pay for Bathon’s illegal actions.
Tracy said that since Don Weber is a lead attorney on the case, he stands to benefit by nearly $1 million if the county were to pay it off.
“Prenzler’s continued use of the treasurer’s office for the financial benefit of Don Weber indicates potential criminal activity,” Tracy said. “To restore integrity to the treasurer's office, Kurt Prenzler’s activities for the direct financial benefit of Don Weber must be thoroughly investigated.”
Tracy said she has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to Prenzler’s office to provide all records of email and phone communication between Weber, Prenzler and the staff of the treasurer’s office. “We are asking for these records to allow the public to see whether the treasurer or his staff are improperly colluding on treasurer’s office business and litigation with Don Weber, including Prenzler’s proposed class-action settlement payments to Weber,” she said.
Weber attended Tracy’s press conference Thursday and called out challenges during her speech, then walked toward her, calling, “Do you want to debate this right now?” Tracy declined, stating that Weber should speak to attorneys about the issue. Another spectator then intervened, asking Weber to “treat her like a lady,” and Weber stepped aside.
Later, Weber said the accusations of collusion were baseless, calling Tracy part of a “Three Stooges of Cover-Up” with Gibbons and Dunstan.
“If I had been state’s attorney, there would have been no need for a civil class-action lawsuit,” Weber said. “I would have already recovered millions of dollars in a state criminal prosecution. I would have already paid the restitution money to the homeowners and taxpayers who were defrauded by Democrat Fred Bathon and his cronies. I would have charged Bathon and his criminal conspirators and obtained restitution as part of the plea-bargain that would have certainly resulted.”
Gibbons responded that Weber should recognize how important it is to have independent investigation and prosecution of public officials. He said when he took office, the State’s Attorney’s Office had already referred the Bathon prosecution to federal authorities. “What Weber suggests would have been improper and could have interfered with the legal process that put Bathon behind bars where he belonged,” Gibbons said.
Gibbons said he has been asked repeatedly to investigate allegations of wrongdoing in Prenzler’s office, in particular his ties to Weber, whom he said was a “disgraced and previously indicted” former state’s attorney who had faced accusations of official misconduct in the past. But Gibbons said he has declined to investigate because his office represents the treasurer and is not the proper agency to do so. Instead, he said, each request has been turned over to the U.S. Attorney, Illinois Attorney General and the Illinois State Police.
“I do agree wholeheartedly that Bathon and his criminal co-conspirators should pay restitution, but what Weber and Prenzler are attempting to do here is have taxpayers foot the bill, making Weber rich in the process,” Gibbons said.
Prenzler said he believes a political machine is running Madison County. “Ms. Tracy’s true intent today is to take the focus off the machine’s decades-long one-party rule, cronyism and cover-up,” he said.
Minner (D-Edwardsville) stood with Tracy during the press conference, as did board members Brenda Roosevelt (D-Glen Carbon) and Bruce Malone (D-Alton). Minner said while he cannot speak to the legality of the issues, he is opposed to abuse of power, and thus he supports an investigation of Prenzler’s activities.
After the press conference, dozens of protesters carrying anti-Prenzler signs marched down the sidewalks of Edwardsville’s Main Street from the county administration building to protest in front of the Wildey Theater, where Prenzler supporters were arriving for a political fundraiser on his behalf.
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2507.