Chief U.S. District Judge David Herndon imposed a 30 month sentence on former Madison County treasurer Fred Bathon on Dec. 6.
“None of this should have happened,” Bathon said. “It was my fault.”
He apologized to county taxpayers and said, “They didn’t get what they deserved.”
Herndon, who practiced law in the Madison County courthouse while Bathon worked there, staged the hearing more as a testimonial tribute than an act of punishment.
Herndon and Bathon’s lawyer, Clyde Kuehn of Belleville, suggested that Bathon’s bid rigging scheme caused little harm to its apparent victims.
Kuehn argued that Bathon didn’t directly benefit from the scheme, while others did.
“This is a very serious crime with drastic impact, but we are having a hard time discovering exactly what that impact was,” Herndon said.
He said Bathon’s crime could cause people to lose faith in government.
“We have to weigh that against the good deeds we know he has done,” Herndon said.
He fined Bathon $20,000, less than a sixth of the minimum under court guidelines.
U.S. Attorney Steve Wigginton, who had recommended a sentence of 37 months, said afterwards that he was satisfied.
“Justice was served,” he said.
From 2005 to 2009, Bathon rigged annual auctions of property tax liens so his campaign contributors could charge delinquent property owners 18 percent interest.
Wigginton charged him with violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act in February.
Bathon waived indictment and immediately pleaded guilty.
Herndon set sentencing in May, but delayed it twice on motions from Bathon.
Herndon began the sentencing hearing by saying he read a number of letters on Bathon’s behalf. He then explained that he would enhance Bathon’s sentencing calculation by four levels because the crime involved about $13.5 million. He said he would also enhance the sentence because the conspiracy involved five or more participants, and would take away two levels because Bathon accepted responsibility.
Herndon said he would take away another level for accepting responsibility if Wiggington recommended it, and Wigginton said he did.
Wigginton said Bathon used his position to obtain campaign contributions and engaged in illegal restraint of trade.
He said Bathon was elected treasurer in 1998, and ran the annual tax lien sale in a clean and legal manner.
In 2004, Bathon set a “one bid only” policy, Wigginton said.
“You would yell out your bid and that would be it, which basically made it a subjective sale,” he said.
Campaign contributors encouraged Bathon to continue the policy, he said.
“In 2005, the really collusive behavior began,” he said.
He said Bathon told his employees to select winners.
“It was no longer an auction,” Wigginton said. “It was a reward to certain individuals.”
Wigginton displayed a photograph of the county board room, where the auctions took place, and said contributors sat in the first two rows.
He said Bathon told the public he assigned seats by lottery.
“There was in fact no such lottery,” Wigginton said.
Bathon’s most significant way to control the auctions was that he did not automate them, Wigginton said.
He said Bathon refused to meet with county tax agent Joe Meyer to discuss automation methods in use at tax sale auctions throughout Illinois.
Bathon automated everything in his office except tax sales, Wigginton said.
Contributors bought 80 percent of parcels sold due to delinquent taxes, he said.
“They knew they would all get their share,” he said.
Wigginton said those who yelled out amounts less than 18 percent would be ignored.
He said the average interest in 2003 and 2004 was barely more than two percent.
It was 14 percent in 2005, 17 percent in 2006, and 18 percent in 2007 and 2008, he said
Last year, it was 2.64 percent, he said.
“People don’t normally contribute to a treasurer’s campaign,” Wigginton said. “He knew he could gather influence and wield power if he transferred the contributions to candidates or to the central committee.”
Wigginton meant the county Democratic central committee, but no one at the hearing spoke the name of Bathon’s party.
Herndon asked if he could reasonably infer that Bathon didn’t keep the contributions.
“He didn’t pocket them but he did in fact use the money to support other candidates, to consolidate his power,” Wigginton said.
Herndon asked if it was fairly common for office holders to buy tickets for fund raisers of other candidates.
“I believe he personally profited,” Wigginton said.
Herndon asked about restitution, and Wigginton said every property tells its own story.
Wigginton said some lost their homes.
“There has been some misery created by this scheme,” he said.
Herndon said it was hard to know the ultimate impact.
“We do foreclosures every week in this court,” Herndon said. “Sometimes the government is the one foreclosing.”
Wigginton said his office spent many hundreds of hours and hired experts.
He said he can’t know the impact unless he sits down with a homeowner.
“That is why the United States concluded it could not determine how much is owed to each one,” Wigginton said.
Herndon asked Kuehn if homeowners redeemed their liens, and Kuehn said 99 percent did.
Herndon asked if they redeemed earlier rather than later.
“I don’t know but my guess is people would be running to redeem,” Kuehn said.
Kuehn said a letter from Bathon’s brother described him as a hard, complex man.
Kuehn described a number of tragic events that beset his client. He said Bathon lived 12 years at the Catholic children’s home in Alton, having left there at age 14. He then supported himself, and earned money to put himself through Assumption High and five years of college.
Kuehn said that three tax buyers pleaded guilty in the conspiracy, and their sentences would range from 10 to 16 months.
He said Bathon’s sentence would be more than those who pocketed the money.
“They still have their ill gotten gains in their bank accounts,” Kuehn said.
Wigginton said that if the United States took Bathon to trial as a good father, husband, friend or brother, the United States would lose.
“I read the letters,” Wigginton said. “I know he has a good heart. He made a terrible mistake.”
Herndon said, “It’s disappointing that we have so many public corruption cases here.”
He said public corruption cases sometimes get attention for the wrong reasons.
“We also have cases from employees of private concerns,” Herndon said.
“Human beings have failings," Herndon said.
He said letters described Bathon as aggressive, and he called it “a code word for not particularly likable.”
He said he learned of Bathon’s charity work from the letters.
He said he didn’t know from his days in Madison County that Bathon gave to charity.
“When people talk about their charity, they have a suspicious motive,” Herndon said. “When they don’t talk about it, they have a right motive.
“The money didn’t go directly into his pocket. That’s not the kind of greed we usually see.”
He said it is pretty much standard in Illinois that candidates do not use their personal funds to contribute to other candidates.
He imposed the 30 month sentence plus two years of supervised release.
He imposed the fine and gave Bathon another chance to speak.
Bathon said he didn’t have $20,000.
Herndon told him he would have to pay $1,000 a month after leaving prison.
Alton lawyer Don Weber, who has filed a Madison County class action on behalf of conspiracy victims, watched the proceedings.
Afterward he praised the current treasurer.
“Kurt Prenzler will be known as the man who made it honest again,” Weber said.
“For every Fred Bathon in public office, you have a Kurt Prenzler to make it right again,” he said.
Herndon plans to sentence campaign contributors John Vassen, Barrett Rochman, and Scott McLean on Feb. 19.