It doesn’t surprise Madison County Treasurer Kurt Prenzler that St. Clair County leaders have so far ignored his discovery of high interest rates at auctions of tax liens.
“These things take time,” Prenzler said in a June 25 interview.
“I blew the whistle on Fred Bathon in 2006, and that took a long time,” he said.
Bathon, former Madison County treasurer, serves a 30 month sentence in federal prison for favoring campaign contributors by rigging bids at auctions of tax liens.
The annual auctions allow tax buyers to bid on liens against property owners who failed to pay their taxes.
Prenzler, a Republican, lost to Bathon, a Democrat, in 2006.
Prenzler said that in that campaign he wanted to see if the county spent too much on the treasurer’s office, so he called 20 to 30 Illinois county treasurers for comparisons of populations, bills and parcels.
“They just laughed hysterically," Prenzler said. "They said oh, that’s the county where you have to pay to play at tax sales.”
Prenzler said it was unethical for Bathon to take campaign contributions from participants in tax sales.
"You have just inserted conflicts of interest all over the place," he said. "It created an appearance that something was wrong.
“He used those tax buyer contributions to beat me, and he only beat me by five thousand votes.”
Prenzler said his campaign manager, Steve Adler, told him, “Now they think they are invincible. They think they can get away with anything.”
"And they did,”he said.
In 2009, Prenzler declared he would run again. Bathon then retired.
The county board appointed Frank Miles to replace Bathon, and Prenzler defeated Miles in the 2010 election.
The bid rigging scandal broke, sending tax buyers John Vassen, Barrett Rochman, and Scott McLean to prison with Bathon.
This year, Prenzler said, St. Clair County tax buyer Ken Brosh brought him records of sales that county treasurer Charles Suarez conducted.
“I was asked to review the data," Prenzler said. "I’m a certified public accountant, and I found similar patterns.
“Lo and behold, what I saw for St. Clair County was 15.8 percent in 2007 and 16.4 in 2008.”
He said the average interest at his first auction was 3.7 percent.
At a press conference on May 30, Prenzler announced his findings at the St. Clair County courthouse.
“Low penalty interest rates benefit taxpayers who can’t pay their property taxes on time," Prenzler said. "My tax sales have saved struggling taxpayers millions of dollars.”
He said the three tax buyers who went to prison donated more than $80,000 to Suarez and the county central Democratic committee.
Reporters who covered his conference then questioned Suarez.
Suarez told reporters that his tax sales have always been a true reverse auction and that he had never prohibited anybody from bidding or bidding lower.
He told the Alton Telegraph that he gave no preferential treatment and he wasn’t aware why rates were so high in 2007 and 2008.
He said, “We are still going to do some research.”
Suarez has not returned messages left at his office.
On June 3, attorney Jack Daugherty of Edwardsville sent Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan a letter asking for an investigation of Prenzler.
Last year, Daugherty objected to Prenzler’s involvement in a bond issue referendum, the form of the tax bill he mailed out, and his investigation of “office holders from other counties.”
He asked Dunstan to turn these matters over to the county ethics advisor and state’s attorney Tom Gibbons.
Gibbons referred the letter to Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan, according to Prenzler, with a copy to U.S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton.
On June 5, Prenzler issued a statement that, “Daugherty may not like the message. He shouldn’t shoot at the messenger."
Prenzler has stated that he considers an analysis of tax sales of neighboring counties to be within his duties and responsibilities as treasurer.
“Given the criminal history of tax sales in Madison County, when a tax buyer from St. Clair County approached me to analyze the St. Clair County data, to refuse would have been irresponsible,”Prenzler stated.
“The data showed that there were indeed similar patterns in the tax sales of Madison and St. Clair counties.”
He stated that since taking office, he has dropped average penalty rates from 17.91 to 1.59 percent.
“This increases confidence in Madison County government,” he stated.
Wigginton, who obtained convictions of Bathon and tax buyers, did not seek restitution for property owners who paid higher interest due to the bid rigging.
Wigginton stated that it would be impracticable to calculate individual damages.
Victims of the Bathon-related bid rigging filed three suits against the county and the tax buyers in Madison County, seeking to calculate and recover damages on behalf of all victims.