EDWARDSVILLE — Divisions in Madison County’s government surfaced last week in an ongoing war of words over the treasurer’s handling of tax sales.
County Board member Kelly Tracy, a Democrat from Marine, held a press conference Thursday at the Madison County Courthouse calling for an investigation of Treasurer Kurt Prenzler. She claimed Prenzler is using his office to financially benefit political ally Don Weber, a former Madison County prosecutor.
Tracy said Prenzler conducted an illegal no-bid, no-interest tax sale on Weber’s behalf in February 2013. She also accused Prenzler of attempting to use his office to benefit Weber by asking the county to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by victims of former Treasurer Fred Bathon, who was convicted Feb. 5, 2013, of manipulating the tax sales so his political contributors would earn the maximum legal interest rate of 18 percent. Weber is one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys and stands to financially benefit if the suit succeeds — Kelly claims as much as $1 million could go to attorneys.
Tax sales, which collect delinquent property taxes for distribution to school districts and other local government units, function as a reverse auction so property owners can pay lower interest rates to tax buyers, who profit by paying delinquent taxes and reaping the interest charges.
Three tax buyers, John Vassen, Scott McLean and Barrett Rochman, also were incarcerated in the Bathon case. Bathon was released from prison in June after serving 18 months of a 30-month sentence.
In an interview, Prenzler said Tracy’s allegations are politically motivated. Tracy called for an investigation of the Weber tax sale in October 2014, just before a November election when Prenzler, a Republican, was engaged in a heated battle to maintain the treasurer’s seat.
“Nothing’s come of it, and nothing will come of it because it’s ridiculous,” he said.
Prenzler said the no-bid tax sale helped Weber’s former wife avoid paying interest rates to a professional tax buyer — a practice he said was long-standing in Madison County and other jurisdictions.
“No tax buyers have ever complained about this,” he said.
The county has since discontinued the practice, with single buyers required to bid with everyone else.
Prenzler also maintains that the State’s Attorney’s Office advised him the sale was legal. But State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons said Assistant State’s Attorney John McGuire made a statement under oath that McGuire told treasurer’s office representatives “I wouldn’t do it” when discussing the no-bid sale.
“The only person who has given sworn testimony on this particular issue to my knowledge is Mr. McGuire, and we stand by that,” Gibbons said.
Prenzler disagrees with Gibbons’ handling of the class-action lawsuit, arguing the county should file a claim against the tax buyers. He estimates plaintiffs paid $4 million too much in interest charges and said the county has funds, generated by fees from tax buyers, to provide restitution.
“Up to this point, the only thing our county government has been doing is the same thing they’ve done all along: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, bring up the drawbridge, you’re getting nothing,” he said.
Gibbons counters that county taxpayers should not have to pay when they did nothing wrong. The county is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
“It certainly makes no sense to me to make the taxpayers of Madison County front the money, essentially giving Fred Bathon and his criminal co-conspirators a loan to satisfy the restitution that they could pay directly through this class-action suit,” Gibbons said.
He said he will continue legal efforts to remove the county as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Gibbons’ office is not involved in any investigations of Prenzler because the state’s attorney serves as legal counsel for the treasurer. Gibbons has sent the investigative requests to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Prenzler portrayed Tracy as part of an attempt to discredit him because he exposed wrongdoing in the county. Prenzler brought up the illegal tax sales as part of his 2006 campaign for treasurer. Prenzler’s then-campaign manager, County Board member Stephen Adler, went to the FBI that year to talk about a tax buyer’s complaints, starting the investigation that led to Bathon’s conviction. Before he went to the FBI, Adler talked to other county officials but got a cool reception, Prenzler said.
“Everybody knew what was going on; nobody stopped it,” he said.
In an interview Tuesday, Tracy said she’s still waiting to hear from the Illinois attorney general about the status of her first request for an investigation.
“I am frustrated at the fact that I have asked for this investigation quite some time ago … and we still don’t have any information on it,” she said.
Tracy said the new investigation request focuses on Weber’s role in the class-action lawsuit. Her first request, in October 2014, was related to Weber’s property being withheld from the tax auction because of his friendship with Prenzler.
“Not only is it a conflict of interest, but I believe it’s collusion and is illegal,” she said.
She dismissed Prenzler’s statement that her allegations are politically motivated.
“He thinks this is political because that’s how he operates,” she said. “Everything he does is for party, and I don’t do that. That’s not how I operate, and I can’t come back to the people in my district and tell them that I sat on any information, especially something that is as bad as this. I don’t serve a political party; I serve people, and that’s our biggest difference, he and I.”
Tracy also disagreed with Prenzler’s stance on settling the lawsuit.
“The tax buyers should have to dip into their funds and repay these people,” she said. “Fred Bathon and Kurt Prenzler should have to pay these people back, but not taxpayers.”