Two Sentenced in Madison County Tax Sale Scheme
|U.S. Attorney’s Office February 20, 2014|
The United States Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, Stephen R. Wigginton, announced today that Scott McLean, 51, of Belleville, Illinois, and John A. Vassen, 56, of O’Fallon, Illinois, were sentenced in the United States District Court in East St. Louis, Illinois, for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Evidence presented at the sentencing hearing established that McLean and Vassen participated in a price fixing scheme orchestrated by former Madison County Treasurer Fred Bathon. Bathon structured the Madison County tax sale to permit the tax buyers to charge distressed homeowners inflated interest rates from 2005 to 2008 in exchange for campaign contributions.
“These tax buyers repeatedly gouged financially distressed homeowners with confiscatory interest rates enabled by a corrupt treasurer. This crime was a toxic combination of public corruption fueled by private greed. The people of Southern Illinois deserve better,” said United States Attorney Wigginton. U.S. Attorney Wigginton praised the work of the Metro East Public Corruption Task Force, including agents from the IRS and the FBI. “These dedicated men and women work long hours for little pay to keep the citizens of our district safe from those who seek only to enrich themselves at our expense.”
McLean was sentenced to 18 months in prison, to serve three years’ supervised release, pay a $25,000 fine, and a special assessment of $100. Vassen was sentenced to 24 months in prison, to serve three years’ supervised release, pay a $25,000 fine and a special assessment of $100. Both sentences were in excess of the recommendation from the United States Sentencing Guidelines. A third tax buyer, Barrett R. Rochman, 70, of Makonda, Illinois, also pled guilty to participating in noncompetitive tax sales on October 17, 2013. Rochman is scheduled to be sentenced on March 25, 2014.
The former treasurer of Madison County, Illinois, Fred Bathon pled guilty to antitrust charges on February 5, 2013. Bathon was sentenced on December 6, 2013, to 30 months in prison, two years’ supervised release, a fine of $20,000, and a special assessment of $100.
The charges allege that at Illinois tax lien auctions, investors bid to purchase tax lien certificates issued against delinquent tax payers. Investors are supposed to compete to purchase these tax liens by bidding on the interest rate the property owner will be required to pay prior to redeeming the tax lien attached to the owner’s property. The bid opens at no more than the statutory maximum of 18 percent and through a competitive bidding process can be driven as low as zero percent. The bidder offering the least penalty percentage rate, i.e., the bidder who is willing to allow the owner to redeem his property for the smallest penalty, is allowed to purchase the tax lien. As such, competitive bidding benefits financially distressed homeowners by reducing the amount of money that they have to pay to save their home from foreclosure; however, that same system reduces the profit made by tax buyers. Tax buyers prefer to receive high interest rates, which corresponds to higher profits.
For the tax sales conducted in 2005 to 2008, Fred Bathon structured the tax sales in a way that eliminated competitive bidding and allowed the tax buyers to engage in price fixing by only bidding the statutory maximum interest rate of 18 percent. The tax buyers who pled guilty today were charged with making campaign donations to Bathon in exchange for receiving property tax liens at non-competitive interest rates.
By 2007 and 2008, the bid rigging and price fixing was so pervasive that distressed homeowners were charged the statutory maximum interest rate on nearly every property tax lien sold. During the tax auction occurring November 14 to 15, 2007, 2,549 out of 2,574 property tax liens were awarded to bidders for the statutory maximum interest rate of 18 percent, which represented 99.03 percent of the property tax liens auctioned. During the tax auction occurring November 13 to 14, 2008, 2,290 out of 2,364 property tax liens were awarded to bidders for the statutory maximum interest rate of 18 percent, which represented 96.86 percent of the property tax liens auctioned.
The investigation was conducted through the Metro East Public Corruption Task Force by agents from the Internal Revenue Service, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The case is being prosecuted by U.S. Attorney Stephen R. Wigginton and Assistant United States Attorney Steven D. Weinhoeft.