In 2006, I decided to blow the whistle. It began with a series of events that continues today.
Earlier this year, former Madison County treasurer Fred Bathon pleaded guilty to bid-rigging, following a federal investigation. Reports are that he could lose his $88,000/year county pension, and he is expected to go to federal prison. His sentencing is scheduled for later this year, in order to give him more time to identify possible co-conspirators.
Many people have asked me, “Kurt, how did you know to blow the whistle, back in 2006?”
Strangely enough, I learned about the unscrupulous tax sales in Madison County from other Illinois county treasurers, when I was running for the elected position in 2006.
As a certified public accountant, I like to gather information on financials and began calling the treasurers to put together cost comparables on their offices. Some treasurers told me tax buyers who came to their tax sales complained that in Madison County, they were pressured into making political contributions, and other payments.
I checked it out. Indeed, Bathon received tens of thousands of dollars from tax buyers. The other treasurers who tipped me off told me that receiving those donations was ethically wrong.
I decided then to become a whistleblower — to shed light on the “unethical” tax sales taking place.
I criticized the practice and proposed solutions. First, I would refuse political donations from tax buyers and second, I would use automatic software to guarantee no conflict of interest in the tax sale.
Even though I lost the election, I still felt I did some good. One of my supporters asked, “Kurt, how do you feel?”
“Well, I lost, but at least they will clean up those tax sales,” I said.
“Kurt, you don’t understand,” he said. “Now they think they are invincible. The tax sales will get worse.”
Amazingly, my friend’s prediction came true. The tax sales did get worse. During the next four years, the subsequent tax sales forced struggling Madison County taxpayers to pay more than $4 million in excessive penalty interest, and that's not considering the people who lost their homes.
In 2010, I ran again. I won and I kept my promises. My first tax sale, in February 2011, produced an average penalty rate under 4 percent, far less than the 18 percent rate charged in previous tax sales. I refused donations from tax buyers and used automatic software to remove all conflict of interest from the tax sale. My ethical tax sales have saved struggling taxpayers millions of dollars.
In June 2012, when the federal investigation started, no one would have predicted the outcome of Bathon pleading guilty on Feb. 5. This month, his punishment was postponed for a second time and he isn’t expected in court again for sentencing until Dec. 5, which is 10 months to the day of his original plea.
It’s not easy being a whistleblower. Often people don’t like to hear bad news, but I felt I had to speak out about the atrocities taking place for the people whom it affected — the taxpayers.
Kurt Prenzler is Madison County Treasurer.