A Republican candidate running for County Clerk is labeling fallout from the federal prosecution of a tax sale bid rigging scheme as Madison County's "Watergate."
Stephen Adler held a press conference Monday and called into question his opponent's knowledge of the scheme as it was occurring in 2006.
Adler is a County Board member of District 6 in Alton.
He said that Debra Ming Mendoza, who is currently County Clerk but was Madison County chief County Assessor in 2006, was a "blind" copy recipient of an internal email dated Nov. 16, 2006, that stated "...66 people registered to buy at the tax sale (do you think word of 18% bids has gotten around)."
The email is from deputy county clerk Diane Boda to County Clerk Mark von Nida (currently Circuit Clerk). It does not list blind copy recipients but lists Evelyn K. Sprankle, Linda J. Carroll and Colleen A. Spudich as being copied on the email. Above the email's memorandum appears the name "Debra D. Ming" which is underlined in bold.
Adler claims the email was furnished by an anonymous county employee "in the interest of taxpayers." The employee wishes to remain anonymous, Adler said, for fear of reprisal. He said the email contradicts testimony Ming Mendoza provided in a deposition in which she stated she became aware of former treasurer Fred Bathon's "no trail bid" methods in 2010.
Bathon is serving a 30 month prison sentence after pleading guilty to a scheme in which nearly every property tax lien sold in some years between 2005 and 2008 was sold at the statutory maximum interest rate of 18 percent. Tax buyers, who provided Bathon with campaign contributions, did not submit competitive bids to lower rates for distressed property owners.
Ming-Mendoza, incumbent Democratic County Clerk, flatly denies Adler's accusations, demanding that he retract his statements and offer an apology.
"My opponent has gone beyond the pale in political discourse," she said in a written statement."Mr. Adler has been presented with the facts, but he has ignored the evidence and continues to make false and malicious claims against me."
She said she was not blind copied on the email.
"In fact, no one was blind-copied on the e-mail." she said. "Further, there is no reason whatsoever for the assessor to have been copied on this memo from the deputy county clerk to the county clerk. Adler's claim is astonishing given that his own document refutes his statement."
The only reason her name appears on the email, she said, was because she processed a Freedom of Information Act request a few months ago. She said the FOIA request was from attorney Don Weber.
Weber is part of the team of attorneys representing distressed property owners who claim they were victimized by Bathon's scheme.
"I processed thousands of e-mails to comply with this request," Ming-Mendoza stated.
"Even at that time, I did not read all of these e-mails. Either my opponent doesn't understand how e-mail works or he is willfully defaming my character."
In Adler's press release he also suggests Ming-Mendoza is at fault because videotape of the "notorious" auctions are now missing.
"As County Assessor, Ms. Mendoza was charged with videotaping the tax sales, it was her responsibility to videotape the now infamous tax sales," Adler stated. "In a sworn deposition Mendoza stated she 'forgot' virtually all the details of the videotaped evidence in her responsibility, which predicated on the email, she knew were evidence of illegal activities. This email was saved by Mendoza as evidence, but not the videotapes?"
Ming-Mendoza rejected Adler's assertion that the assessor's office has anything to do with the tax sales. She said that has been pointed out to Adler, "yet he continues to make this statement, clearly knowing it is false.
"Obviously, the facts are inconvenient to the story he is trying to tell," Ming-Mendoza stated.
"The Treasurer's office for many years has recorded tax sales, but has no video camera. Rather than purchase a video camera for an annual tax sale, they borrowed a camera from the Assessor's office. Often, an Assessor's office employee with experience in operating the camera would take it to the sale location, set up the camera and then leave. The employee would return and pick up the camera after the sale. If the videotape was still in the camera, the Assessor's employee would mark it and put it in a box and hold it until the Treasurer's office requested it.
"The tapes were the Treasurer's office's documents, not the Assessor's. When the Treasurer's office requested the tapes, we naturally turned them over to their rightful owner, which is what happened."
Ming-Mendoza also stated that her office had turned over the tapes to the Treasurer's office and that her testimony clearly states that her office had turned over the tapes to the Treasurer's office.
"He knows this, yet he continues to make this false statement," she said.
Adler said that Ming-Mendoza and other county officials need to explain "what they knew about the tax sales, when they knew it and what they did about it."
"This is Madison County’s own version of Watergate, complete with missing tapes," he said.
Adler said he would call for an ethics investigation.