EAST ST. LOUIS – Three times in six weeks, federal judges sentenced courthouse criminals to longer stretches than U.S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton recommended.
His prescription for punishment fell short not only with former St. Clair County judge Michael Cook but also with two men who rigged bids in Madison County tax auctions.
In February, Chief District Judge David Herndon chose to ignore plea agreements setting a range of 10 to 16 months for bid riggers John Vassen and Scott McLean.
Herndon ordered two years for Vassen, 18 months for McLean.
Vassen, McLean and others conspired with former Madison County treasurer Fred Bathon to gain maximum interest on property tax liens at public auctions.
They reached plea agreements with Wigginton before he filed charges.
In a single day last October, they waived indictments, stood for arraignment, pleaded guilty, and submitted the agreements.
On Feb. 11, eight days before their sentencing hearing, Herndon notified them that he questioned whether 10 to 16 months was appropriate.
He wrote that he would consider the nature and circumstances of their offenses and the disruption to governmental operations.
He wrote that he would also consider the absence of restitution.
Wigginton had advised Herndon that it was impracticable to determine the loss that each victim suffered from the bid rigging conspiracy.
Wigginton lacked the motivation of local lawyers, who pursue three Madison County class actions seeking to determine the cost of the conspiracy.
At sentencing hearings on Feb. 19, assistant U.S. attorney Steven Weinhoeft recommended 16 months for Vassen, and a year and a day for McLean.
McLean asked for probation. So did Vassen, but in the alternative he proposed five months in custody and five months of home confinement.
Herndon ruled that a 10 month split sentence for Vassen and probation for McLean would be disrespectful to the law and to the victims of the conspiracy.
At McLean's hearing, Herndon said, "Fred Bathon most certainly was the leader in this criminal enterprise, but it couldn't have happened if the six individuals he relied upon to rig the bids would have said it's illegal, despite your delusions of grandeur, and we don't care. We can only do business in the other one hundred and one counties."
At both hearings he said Bathon didn't pocket hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit. McLean and Vassen each gained about $700,000 by rigging bids.
Herndon said that for Vassen, 16 months inadequately took into account the disparity with the two and a half year sentence he imposed on Bathon.
Herndon sentenced Vassen to two years, McLean to 18 months.
On Feb. 26, a week after Herndon sentenced Vassen and McLean, District Judge Joe Billy McDade of Peoria rejected Cook’s plea agreement.
McDade told Cook he could withdraw the plea and negotiate another.
Cook did not withdraw the plea, and he appeared before McDade again on March 28.
His lawyer, Bill Lucco, asked McDade for six months. Wigginton asked for 18.
Wigginton told McDade any criticism of 18 months as too lenient was absurd.
McDade, who had clearly signaled since January that he considered 18 months too lenient, ordered two years.
Cook retains the right to appeal.