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Madison County board chair calls censure for campaign ethics violation a ‘lynching’

Madison County Chairman Kurt Prenzler speaks into a microphone at a desk.
Derik Holtmann
/
Belleville News-Democrat
Back in 2022, the Madison County Board voted 19-6 to remove powers from County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.

Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler stands censured after a vote by the full county board and executive committee on Wednesday, which he called a “lynching.”

The executive committee, which is comprised of the chairs of the other county board committees, had already discussed Prenzler’s ethics violation last month. Prenzler is accused of passing out a political business card to an outside vendor seeking to do business with the county.

According to the investigation report by ethics advisor Bruce Mattea, the action is a violation of the prohibition on electioneering on county time and property.

The orange card he gave the vendor lists Prenzler’s accomplishments and offers links to his political campaign fundraising website,according to the report. Mattea wrote that the action reinforces the concept of political quid-pro-quo.

“This innuendo is highly improper, it diminishes public confidence, and such actions could lead to distrust of the county’s elected officials,” Mattea wrote. “It could result in the albeit mistaken impression on the part of the recipient that a political contribution to the chairman’s campaign would result in economic advantage to the vendor.”

Prenzler has insisted it was a mistake, that he wrote his phone number on the card and gave it to the vendor when he should have put it on a piece of paper. He also told the BND that he and the vendor, an employee of Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations, talked about a variety of topics including former county treasurer Fred Bathon, and he gave the employee the card because it included the Bathon case as one of his accomplishments.

The vendor was the initial report of Prenzler’s actions, according to GOP board member Mick Madison. The investigation was forwarded to the Illinois State Police and Illinois Attorney General by state’s attorney Thomas Haine, also a Republican. No charges have been filed. Haine said he forwarded the case rather than prosecuting it himself because the likelihood for a conflict of interest was high.

Currently, Madison serves as board chairman pro tem and chairs the executive committee, after the Republican-majority county board voted 19-6 to strip Prenzler of some of his powers in 2022.

Madison said the executive committee brought back the issue of Prenzler’s campaign card because, despite Prenzler’s apology, his comments in the media afterward indicated he didn’t think it was that big a deal. Madison said that when Mattea was conducting his investigation, Prenzler was given 24 questions to clarify the incident and refused to answer them.

Madison dismissed Prenzler’s argument that the censure motion was politically motivated.

“I would have to do this no matter what elected official was accused,” he said. “After apologizing, you went into the public and called it a witch hunt. You’re misleading the public that there’s people coming after you. You did this to yourself.”

Mike Babcock, vice chair of the executive committee, told Prenzler “shame on you.”

“If you had just apologized and moved on… but you sit there and point fingers?” he said.

Prenzler gave a statement to the executive committee and again to the full board stating that he thought his apology last month should have been sufficient.

“For the committee to bring this up again underscores the intent of some people to make a mountain out of this molehill,” he said.

In both statements, Prenzler said he felt the process had been unfair and accused the Republican majority of giving special treatment to his primary election opponent, county treasurerChris Slusser. Before the full board, Prenzler placed visual aids of Slusser’s campaign website using a photograph of Slusser acting as treasurer.

However, Haine and others repeatedly told Prenzler that the photograph had been investigated and was deemed in the public domain due to its display on a government website, and thus was not a violation.

Prenzler also stated that the vendor was from Ohio and could not vote in Madison County. But Haine, also a Republican, reminded him that the ethics ordinances say a candidate may not give a vendor campaign literature no matter where they’re from.

Prenzler insisted that “Mr. Slusser’s conduct has been far worse than mine” and compared him to Bathon, with a long recitation of Bathon’s crimes, for which he served time in prison. He also accused Haine of bias, stating that Haine had donated money to Slusser’s campaign. That drew a strong reaction from the gallery in the county board room.

“You just slandered our state’s attorney’s name, and you can do it because it’s allowed,” Babcock said. “You refused to answer (Mattea’s) questions, and he’s the ethics advisor you appointed, who also donated to your campaign.”

Prenzler stated that “this is a lynching with no due process,” after which the vote was called.

The motion passed with Republicans Paul Nicolussi, Michael Turner, Frank Dickerson, Valerie Doucleff, John Janek and Bob Meyer voting against the censure. Skip Schmidt, Dalton Gray, Nick Petrillo and Chris Guy were absent.

The other 16 members voted yes, and the measure passed. Of those voting for censure, seven were Democrats and nine Republicans.

Censure bears little practical impact, according to Madison and Haine: it is a formal “declaration of disagreement and disapproval,” warning Prenzler not to commit the action again, Haine said. That’s the limit of the county board’s power over an elected official, but an employee of the county would face up to a year in jail, possible dismissal, and a $2,500 fine, Madison said.

Slusser said after the vote that he would rather it had waited until after the primary election so “it wouldn’t look political,” but agreed it was an appropriate vote. Prenzler left the board room immediately after the meeting.

Elizabeth Donald is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Elizabeth Donald is a freelance journalist based in the Metro East.