MOUNT VERNON – Victims of bid rigging in the Madison County courthouse can pursue a class action, Fifth District appellate judges decided on Aug. 17.
Justices Richard Goldenhersh and Bruce Stewart denied a petition from the county to review a class certification order from the county’s circuit court.
Justice James Moore would have granted review.
Clinton County Associate Judge William Becker, presiding in Madison County by special appointment, certified the class action in June.
Plaintiffs claim property owners paid more than $2 million in excess interest on delinquent taxes due to corruption at auctions from 2005 to 2008.
They seek damages from the county and former treasurer Fred Bathon, who served time in federal prison for leading the conspiracy.
They also seek damages from tax buyers Scott McLean, Barrett Rochman, and John Vassen, who pleaded guilty and went to prison.
They further seek damages from five other tax buyers and their companies, and from auctioneer Jim Foley.
The Fifth District decision pleased current county treasurer Kurt Prenzler, who said victims should receive restitution.
He said the county could settle the case and try to recover the money from Bathon and his cronies.
“It’s time for state’s attorney Tom Gibbons and county board Chairman Alan Dunstan to get on the right side of this issue and help the defrauded homeowners,” Prenzler said in a statement.
“Gibbons and Dunstan should stop protecting the tax buyers who benefited financially.”
In response, Gibbons issued a statement saying that Madison County taxpayers "should not be forced to pay restitution for the crimes of Fred Bathon and his criminal co-conspirators, as Mr. Prenzler is recommending."
He said he could not imagine "how anyone who is fighting to protect our citizens and their hard-earned money could think that taxpayers – not the criminals – should be on the hook for damages in this case. That’s the kind of nonsense you might expect to hear in Springfield or Washington D.C., but it makes no sense here in Madison County.
Gibbons also suggested that if Prenzler's ideas were adopted it could result in "a jackpot of attorney’s fees being paid from taxpayer money directly into the pocket of Mr. Prenzler’s chief political advisor Don Weber."
Weber is among counsel for the proposed class of distressed property owners.
"Madison County officials have always agreed that the victims of Fred Bathon and his criminal co-conspirators should receive a full measure of justice, but that restitution to the victims should only come out of the pockets of the criminals – not out of the pockets of hard-working Madison County taxpayers, as Mr. Prenzler is recommending," Gibbons added.
U.S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton could have sought restitution from Bathon and tax buyers, but declared it was impracticable to calculate damages.
Property owners then sued for restitution, and Becker’s class certification order placed them in a powerful position.
Four private lawyers helped Gibbons write the county’s petition for review.
"The county is not alleged to have been involved in the Bathon scheme or alleged to be a conspirator,” they wrote.
They wrote that the county received no benefit from Bathon’s conduct, and that it simply passed the money on to the tax buyers.
They also wrote that determining damages would require extensive analysis of every parcel, and they relied on Wigginton’s decision for their authority.
“The Government explained that tax buyers selectively purchase tax liens based upon a number of subjective variables, such as the location of the property, the state of repair of the structure on the land, the homeowner’s payment history, the size of the tax bill, the assessed value of the property, the real estate market where the property is located, along with many other factors,” they wrote.
They separately petitioned for review on behalf of auctioneer Foley, pleading that he wasn’t the one who picked the winners.
Class counsel Paul Grote of Clayton, Mo., answered that differences in individual damages don’t defeat common questions of law and fact.
“The conspiracy as confessed by some of the defendants, and which will need to be proven against the remaining defendants, essentially removed the factors from the sales process that the defendants now rely upon to argue against certification of the class,” Grote wrote.
He wrote that Prenzler disagreed with Wigginton’s conclusion that damages were too difficult to calculate.