Madison County Board chairman Kurt Prenzler seeks to dismiss a St. Clair County tax buyer’s defamation lawsuit alleging his reputation and business were damaged after he was accused of participating in a bid-rigging scheme.
The defamation lawsuit was filed by tax buyer Joseph Vassen on Jan. 2 through attorney Paul Slocomb of Hoffman Slocomb LLC in St. Louis against Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler, tax buyer Kenneth Brosh, and St. Clair County residents Kathleen Dvorak, Kevin Dvorak, John Bloyer and Adriane “Kathleen” Bloyer, alleging defamation and false light. Vassen seeks damages of an unspecified amount.
Vassen argues that a federal lawsuit alleging he participated in a bid rigging scheme in St. Clair County “contained false statements that were caused to be published by the defendants and constitute statements that are defamatory per se.”
Vassen claims the alleged false statements have damaged his reputation in the community, injured his business and deterred people from associating with him.
Vassen also alleges the defendants gave publicity to a matter that placed him before the public in a false light, which he claims “was highly offensive.”
Vassen’s claims against Prenzler arise out of statements made at a May 30, 2014 press conference, statements contained in a May 2014 St. Louis Post Dispatch article and allegations made in the federal lawsuit filed Oct. 17, 2014.
Prenzler filed a motion to dismiss on March 11 through attorney Michael Murphy of Freeark Harvey & Mendillo PC in Belleville.
He argues that Vassen’s claims should be barred by the absolute litigation privilege, as “anything said or written in a legal proceeding, including pleadings is protected by an absolute privilege against defamation actions, subject only to the qualification that the words be relevant or pertinent to the matters in controversy.”
“In the case at bar, any alleged statements made in the federal lawsuit are obviously relevant or pertinent to the matters in controversy. Therefore, all such statements are absolutely privileged and cannot form the basis of a defamation or false light claim,” the motion states.
Prenzler also argues that Vassen’s claims are barred by the one-year statute of limitations for defamation and false light claims. He argues the statute of limitations begins to run when the alleged defamatory material is published.
“In the case at bar, the publication of the alleged defamatory material was in May of 2014 when the press conference and St. Louis Post newspaper article occurred and when the federal lawsuit was filed in October 17, 2014.
“At the very latest, the last publication was when Vassen was served on December 3, 2014,” the motion states.
On March 8, Vassen filed a motion to disqualify attorney Nelson Mitten of Riezman Berer PC in St. Louis for defendants Kathleen and Kevin Dvorak under the advocate-witness rule, because they had the same counsel representing the Dvoraks in the underlying federal complaint.
“The attorneys testimony is central to the issues in the instant case,” the motion states.
The federal lawsuit in question alleged Vassen and other tax purchasers conspired with St. Clair County Treasurer Charles Suarez to fix St. Clair County real estate tax sales so that owners were required to pay “artificially high” interest penalties at or near the maximum 18 percent rate in order to redeem their properties.
According to Vassen's defamation complaint, he alleges Brosh, a dentist, participates in the annual St. Clair County delinquent tax sales and spends as much as $400,000 per sale. During the 2007 and 2008 tax sales in St. Clair County, Vassen alleges the majority of Brosh’s successful bids were also at the maximum 18 percent.
“Nevertheless, defendant Brosh contacted defendant Kurt Prenzler in Spring 2014 claiming he had doubts about the legality of the 2007 and 2008 tax sales in St. Clair County, and asked defendant Prenzler to review the tax sale data and give him his opinion.
“Defendant Brosh didn’t reference his own large number of 18% winning bids at these sales as part of his inquiry,” the suit states.
Prenzler was the Madison County treasurer at the time and had no official position in St. Clair County.
Vassen alleges Brosh was “a competitive buyer” and “a financial contributor” to Prenzler’s Madison County political campaigns.
Brosh and Prenzler allegedly reached out to Brad Van Hoose, “a St. Clair County Republican Party Operative” to obtain the St. Clair County tax sale data.
Van Hoose was allegedly instructed by Roger Cook, who was running for treasurer against Suarez, to make a Freedom of Information Act request for the tax sale data.
“Mr. Van Hoose was present in several meetings with Roger Cook and defendant Ken Brosh during which he was informed that the purpose of the FOIA request was to file a lawsuit against Mr. Suarez in an effort to embarrass and harass Mr. Suarez before the upcoming November 2014 election,” the suit states.
Prenzler then held a press conference on May 30, 2014 at the St. Clair County Circuit Court in Belleville “in an effort to call attention to the allegedly illegal and improper tax sales.”
Vassen alleges the press conference was orchestrated by Prenzler for political purposes at the behest of Brosh, “who hoped to financially benefit from making public accusations” against other tax buyers.
At the time of the press conference, Prenzler was running for reelection as Madison County treasurer against Maureen Suarez, who is related to Charles Suarez. Prenzler allegedly gave the information he analyzed to the St. Clair County Republican Committee.
An article was published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch in May 2014 indicating that Prenzler planned to announce that he discovered potentially criminal conduct.
Brosh was quoted in a Belleville News Democrat article in May 2014 saying he believed the tax sale practices were rigged and unethical. He was also quoted in a May 2014 article in The Telegraph saying he believed the tax sales were unethical.
“Defendant Brosh was disappointed that the press conference didn’t generate any follow-up press so he spoke to defendant Prenzler numerous times and they decided that defendant Brosh should track down some of the individuals who did not pay their taxes and convince them to contact attorney Don Weber, who was referred by defendant Prenzler, so they could file a lawsuit before the election,” the suit states.
Vassen alleges Brosh looked up publicly available records at the St. Clair County courthouse for several days following the press conference.
A lawsuit was then filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois on Oct. 17, 2014, less than three weeks before the Nov. 4 election. The plaintiffs in that lawsuit were Kathleen and Kevin Dvorak and Kathleen and John Bloyer.
Vassen alleges the defendants conspired to file a class action against him and other tax buyers with allegations of common-law civil conspiracy, money had and received, violations of the Federal Sherman Act and violations of the Illinois Antitrust Act.
The lawsuit filed in federal court sought recovery for “losses arising from an illegal and improper agreement and conspiracy” between Suarez and several tax purchasers “to artificially inflate” penalties at the 2006 and 2007 tax sales. Those sales were conducted in 2007 and 2008.
Vassen had denied the allegations raised in the federal court lawsuit.
Vassen claims he did not purchase the delinquent taxes in question and did not receive any compensation whatsoever from the sale of the Dvoraks’ taxes or the Bloyers’ taxes.
The federal lawsuit was dismissed in its entirety on March 29, 2018 when District Judge Staci Yandle granted summary judgment for the St. Clair County tax buyer defendants.
Yandle found that there were insufficient facts to state any cause of action against Suarez or any of the tax buyers.
Vassen is also a named defendant in a similar ongoing class action in Madison County, alleging former Madison County Treasurer Fred Bathon orchestrated a "pay to play" scheme.
Bathon pleaded guilty to structuring property tax sales in a way that increased interest rates for tax buyers in exchange for campaign contributions. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
St. Clair County Chief Judge Andrew Gleeson scheduled a hearing for all pending motions on April 2 at 9 a.m. He also set a case management conference for June 17 at 9 a.m.
St. Clair County Circuit Court case number 19-L-6