EDWARDSVILLE – Former Madison County treasurer Fred Bathon, who pleaded guilty of leading a conspiracy to rig bids, swore in May that he knew nothing about it because those who should have told him didn’t tell him.
Bathon cast himself in the role of fall guy at a deposition as defendant in a civil suit.
He said that if he had been in the room for annual auctions of delinquent taxes from 2005 to 2008, he would have stopped the proceedings.
He said state’s attorney William Mudge, now circuit judge, advised him to leave the building during tax sales due to the presence of campaign contributors.
Plaintiff counsel Steven Giacoletto asked Bathon if he followed Mudge’s advice.
Bathon said, “Absolutely, right to prison.”
His testimony cast tax buyer Barrett Rochman in the role of chief villain.
Bathon described how Rochman connected himself to Patty Ward and James Foley, employees of the treasurer’s office responsible for the auctions.
Bathon said Clyde Kuehn, who represented him on the conspiracy charge in U.S. district court, no longer represents him.
“I have no money,” he said.
Bathon pleaded guilty in 2013, and spent more than a year in prison.
Tax buyers Rochman, John Vassen and Scott McLean all served more than a year.
Property owners sued Bathon, the county, and tax buyers in Madison County circuit court, to recover amounts they spent on interest due to the conspiracy.
Most property owners paid 18 percent interest, the legal limit, in the absence of meaningful competition that could have reduced the rate.
Plaintiffs proposed a class action, and visiting judge William Becker of Clinton County certified a class in 2015.
Fifth District appellate judges affirmed Becker’s decision last year.
Plaintiffs and defendants examined Bathon on May 15, at the Heyl Royster law firm.
Giacoletto asked him if he remembered the contents of a stipulation he signed in the criminal case.
“Basically, once I signed them I was going to prison,” Bathon said.
Giacoletto asked if he believed the document was accurate and truthful.
Bathon said he absolutely believed it was the narrative and the truth of former U.S. attorney Stephen Wigginton.
“Did it become my narrative of the truth?” Bathon said. “When I signed it, it did.”
Giacoletto asked when he realized he was under investigation.
Bathon said Kuehn called him and said he ran into an attorney who informed him that the feds were talking about convening a grand jury to look at his office.
Giacoletto asked if he recalled who the other attorney was, and Bathon said no.
Giacoletto asked how much time elapsed until he signed the stipulation, and Bathon said a year or a year and a half.
Giacoletto asked if the U.S. attorney’s office coerced him with a severe charge.
“They were threatening me with 292 months,” Bathon said.
He said if he refused a plea on the Sherman Antitrust Act, which carried 10 years, they were going to hit him with honest service fraud.
“It was a 20 year sentence,” Bathon said. “I’d be like Blagojevich rotting in prison.”
Giacoletto asked if he figured out what put the U.S. attorney on him.
Bathon said that in 2010, when it first hit the paper, Kuehn called Wigginton.
He said Wigginton told Kuehn he had no interest in the case.
Bathon said the next thing he knew he was indicted.
“I can read the paper and follow the dots, but I can’t tell you specifically why it happened,” Bathon said.
Giacoletto asked if it was the Belleville News-Democrat or somebody in county politics.
Bathon said he suspected that somebody in the administration building with some clout called the U.S. attorney.
Giacoletto asked if he had any idea who it was, and Bathon said no.
Giacolleto displayed a seating chart and asked who created it.
Bathon said Patty Ward.
Giacoletto asked if any tax buyers complained about their location.
“Only one that I recall was John Scott,” Bathon said. “This all happened as a result of John Scott.”
Giacoletto said, “The seating chart?”
Bathon said, “No, just John Scott’s complaining about him not being treated fairly. John Scott fabricated this whole thing in terms of him being mistreated, him not getting fair bids.”
He said assistant state’s attorney John McGuire stated in a report that the sales were chaotic and the seating assignments made sense. He said he didn’t see McGuire’s report until after all this happened.
“I just got a call one day that said that he has determined that my sales were fine and that was it,” Bathon said.
Giacoletto asked who called, and Bathon said John McGuire.
Giacoletto asked if the auction process was called a “no trailing bid” method.
Bathon said that after the bidding was completed, “John Scott would jump in and throw a number in just to aggravate the sale.”
“He was mad at me at the time,” Bathon said. “That’s when I mentioned the no trailing bids.”
He said the buyers and Patty (Ward) were aggravated.
“All I was doing was making a comment to try to make it right,” he said.
He said the feds took that and ran on the whole narrative of no trailing bids.
“If a guy yells 18, a guy yells 16, and you yell zero, who gets the bid?” Bathon said.
“You do. One bid, low bid. I just miscalculated that these guys would all collude and get into 18s.”
Giacoletto said, “Whoever Patty Ward thought she heard first, recognized first, she would give it to them?”
Bathon said, “Who she heard the lowest bid from. One bid, low bid.”
Giacoletto said, “If several people all barked out 18s, and only 18 was the low bid, she would have to decide?”
Bathon said, “She always did.”
Giacoletto asked if he watched any auctions from 2005 to 2008.
Bathon said, “Wasn’t in the building on the advice of my state’s attorney.”
He said he told Mudge he didn’t want legal problems from taking political contributions from tax buyers.
“His advice was, do the normal. Go in, introduce yourself, turn the sale over to your staff, and leave,” Bathon said.
Giacoletto asked if he followed the advice.
Bathon said, “Absolutely, right to prison.”
Giacoletto asked if in hindsight, he would have stayed.
Bathon said, “No, in hindsight I would have asked what was the result of the sales. First time I knew these were 18 percent sales, I read it in the paper. I immediately called Jim Foley and said what the hell are they talking about, 18 percent sales?”
He said that when tax buyers bought taxes, he got what he needed and disbursed it to cities and schools.
“The moment that bid is awarded, I have no interest in it,” Bathon said.
Giacoletto asked if he had conversations with tax buyers about automatic bidding.
Bathon said, “I didn’t believe it to be fair. I told them that as long as I was county treasurer, that would not be used.
“In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have said that. That was part of what was used against me as some conspiracy of some sort.”
Giacoletto asked if Foley was a board member of a Barrett Rochman bank.
Bathon said, “I didn’t know that until he had been there for some time.
“I thought well, he’s not really influencing the sale, you know, he’s reading a number and that’s it. In retrospect, that was a terrible mistake because I believe that’s all why this happened.
“Nobody told me that these 18s were running, and I think part of that is people like him, people like Jim were part of Barrett Rochman’s group.”
Giacoletto asked how Foley helped Rochman in the collusion.
Bathon said, “Probably not coming to me and telling me to stop it.”
Giacoletto asked if he was aware of Rochman taking or sending Foley on trips.
Bathon said he found out Foley took a trip or two on Rochman.
Giacoletto asked if it was inappropriate.
Bathon said, “I would have fired him.”
Giacoletto said Foley basically took the Fifth Amendment during discovery in this case, and asked Bathon if he knew why.
Bathon said, “I think him and Barrett had a side deal, just as I do Patty.”
Giacoletto said Ward took the Fifth Amendment, and he asked Bathon if his suspicions were the same with her.
Bathon said, “I’ve learned that she had some meetings or spent some time, or Barrett had some times with her that I was unaware of.
“I’ve been told that he’s been to her bar, came by her house or something.”
He said he concluded that there was more going on that he was blind to.
Giacoletto asked if he would have put a stop to it.
Bathon said, “I would have removed her from the tax sale at least.”
He said that when he became treasurer, Rochman came to his office and said he supported Wes Tucker, Bathon’s opponent.
“Barrett said, I want to make it clear to you I now support you,” Bathon said.
He said he introduced Rochman to Foley.
“That allowed Barrett to sit there and get to know Jim and find out his banking background and put all this other stuff together,” Bathon said.
Giacoletto asked if former county board chairman Alan Dunstan knew anything.
Bathon said he went to county administrator Joe Parente on a payroll concern.
“After I got done talking to him, he said hey, you have to – you need to change that tax sale,” Bathon said.
He said he shut Parente off and said there was nothing wrong with the tax sale.
“I can’t tell you how many nights I wished I would have said Joe, why do I need to change that sale?” Bathon said. “Be specific.”
Giacoletto said, “He didn’t elaborate?”
Bathon said, “Didn’t say another word.”
Giacoletto asked how he would bridge that to Dunstan.
Bathon said, “I think if Joe Parente knew, his boss had to know. There weren’t many things that I’m aware of that Joe didn’t handle with his boss. I mean he was pretty loyal about that.”
Giacoletto asked if county clerk Mark Von Nida complained.
Bathon said, “Mark Von Nida knew what was going on, no doubt in my mind. Bill Mudge knew what was going on.”
Giacoletto asked why auctions weren’t videotaped from 2005 to 2008.
Bathon said he watched an earlier one and, “It was kind of stupid. You saw the backs of a few of the guys. You heard people screaming. I though this is silly, so I got rid of it. Another regret.
“I wish I would have kept it. It would have had me on tape saying one bid, low bid.”
Giacoletto asked if anyone from the county clerk’s office was at the auctions, and Bathon said Diane Hosto.
Giacoletto asked if she complained about possible collusion, and Bathon said, “Never talked to the lady.”
Next, Paul Slocomb examined Bathon on behalf of tax buyer John Vassen.
Slocomb asked him what he would say if the feds said he implemented no trail bidding on Vassen’s advice.
Bathon said it wasn’t true, and Slocomb asked if John Scott was the reason.
Bathon said, “Absolutely. I was tired of his petty bitching.”
Slocomb set up a hypothetical scenario, asking Bathon to assume that Mudge didn’t tell him to leave and in fact told him to steer into it and sit through it.
Bathon said, “I’d still have my pension and I wouldn’t have went to prison.”
Slocomb asked him to assume that Ward routinely and consistently awarded 18 percent even when it wasn’t the low bid, and asked what he would have done.
Bathon said, “I don’t believe she would have done that had I been in the room.”
He said that if she had done it, he would have stopped the sale and found somebody else to do the job.
Slocomb said spotters in the room testified that people yelled lower numbers than Ward accepted.
Slocomb asked Bathon if he had any first hand information that tax buyers colluded as opposed to county officials dictating which bids they would accept.
Bathon said, “That’s a good point,” and repeated that he would have fixed it.
Slocomb said, “Can you envision a scenario where this conspiracy was completely and solely constructed by Patty Ward and Mr. Foley, to only accept 18 percent and, at worst, the tax buyers finally just gave up and started bidding at 18 percent?”
Bathon said, “No I can’t, without Barrett Rochman being part of that. I don’t think Patty or Jim, in and of itself, would want to do that without some incentive, and I think Barrett provided that incentive.”
Slocomb read an electronic message that Diane Boda sent to Von Nida in 2006, stating that Ward said 66 people registered for the tax sale.
Slocomb asked Bathon if he was listed on the message, and Bathon said no.
Slocomb read it: “Do you think word of 18 percent bids has gotten around?”
Bathon said, “Kind of says they knew about them, don’t they?”
Slocomb asked what he would have done if they shared the message with him.
Bathon said, “I would have stopped the sales, corrected it, but I believe there’s a reason for that. The end result is all they wanted.”
Slocomb said, “What was that?”
Bathon said, “Put me in prison. They liked that idea.”
Slocomb asked which ones.
Bathon said, “I don’t think Von Nida or Boda either one was upset by what happened to me.”
Daniel Delaney, representing tax buyer Dennis Ballinger, asked Bathon if he previously talked with lawyers for the plaintiffs.
Bathon said he and Kuehn met with them after he pleaded.
Delaney asked if he told them anything different from what he testified today.
Bathon said, “Not that I know of. I mean truth is the truth.”
Natalie Kussart, representing Rochman, asked Bathon if he had any personal knowledge of tax buyers making agreements.
Bathon said no, and she brought up his statement about collusion.
He said Slocomb gave another scenario that could have caused the 18s.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have said that but if they’re all 18s, I assume there was colluding,” Bathon said.
Kussart asked who told him Foley took trips with Rochman.
Bathon said, “FBI, Murphy.”
Kussart asked if he knew whether that was true, and he said no.
Kussart asked if he went to one of Rochman’s wineries.
Bathon said he went and thought it was appropriate to take Ward.
“In retrospect, that was a terrible mistake on my part,” Bathon said.
He said he left after dinner and Ward stayed.
Kussart finished, and Giacoletto asked Bathon to elaborate.
Bathon said, “I regret having taken Patty down there and leaving her at the dinner to socialize with Barrett and develop this relationship. I think that all fed into Barrett taking advantage of that relationship and winning Patty over to be part of this process.”
Giacoletto finished, and Delaney asked Bathon why he met with plaintiffs’ lawyers.
Bathon told Delaney he would have to ask his attorney.
“I know he wasn’t happy with me in the meeting,” Bathon said.
Delaney asked why, and he said, “I guess I didn’t say what he thought I would say.”
Delaney asked if Kuehn still represented him.
Bathon said, “No, I have no money.”
When the questions ended, Bathon said, “And you wonder why I took a plea?”