Atty. Crystal Johnson

Auditor's office calls attorney a "straw tax sale purchaser"

Contributed By:The 411 News

Crystal Johnson's reputation tarnished at county commissioner’s tax sale hearing

Monday's Lake County Commissioners Tax Sale had nearly 9,000 parcels for sale because of unpaid property taxes. The parcels were a mix of residential dwellings, commercial buildings and vacant lots the county auctioned to the highest bidder.

In the courtroom of Magistrate Lisa Berdine last week, hearings were held for bidders who had been denied permission to take part in the sale.

Atty. Crystal L. Johnson had filed an Emergency Petition to Approve Tax Sale Registration for herself and 11 clients.

Each bidder had submitted an application during the registration period and paid the $500 fee to the Lake County Auditor's Office. In the days after the March 17th registration deadline, the bidders received notice from the auditor their applications had been rejected.

The reason for the auditor's office denial was "Same IP address."

Gina Scheidt, Lake County Auditor's Tax Sale Supervisor, said multiple registrations were coming in with the same IP address. "That raised a red flag and we decided to investigate."

Bidders this year had to register online, presenting challenges to some not familiar with filing documents electronically. In prior years, registration was done in person at the Lake County Auditor's Office in the county government complex.

The IP (Internet Protocol) address is a distinct set of numbers assigned to a specific computer, mobile device or network as they access the internet. Atty. Johnson argued the same IP address wasn't a valid reason to deny a bidder.

"For at least three days, my office became a help desk for the Lake County Commissioners Tax Sale registration. I have 3 laptops and two scanners that were made available to registrants, free of charge," Johnson said. Johnson said that meant bidders using their own devices at her office and the bidders who used her computers and scanners to transfer documents were assigned the same IP address.

Johnson said bidders who used computers at the libraries and public sites would also be rejected if other tax sale registrants used the same devices.

Earlier in the week, the auditor's office had granted emergency approval for several of Atty. Johnson's clients that it had previously denied.

At Thursday's May 5th hearing, Randy Wyllie, attorney for the auditor's office questioned Johnson about her purchasing history in prior year tax sales.

Atty. Wyllie said Johnson purchased a property at 2301 Connecticut in Gary at a tax sale for $500. Soon after, Johnson sold it for $6,000 to one of her associates.

The property had accrued $205,000 in unpaid property taxes. Wyllie said the person Johnson sold it to was a relative of the owners who had failed to make property tax payments. "Johnson was a straw bidder. She washed the taxes away, then deeded it to the owner who had created the delinquency," Wyllie said.

Johnson said she didn't know there was a family relationship between the prior owners and the person she sold the property to. Atty. Wyllie pointed out the buyer had the same last name as one of the prior owners.

Magistrate Berdine denied Johnson's emergency approval for tax sale registration, stating Johnson "didn't present as a credible witness."

Berdine also denied emergency approval for 2 more of Johnson's clients who appeared before the bench that day.

Johnson was stoic but shaken after the hearing. "I came here to get emergency approvals but was met with accusations of fraud. If I had known, we would have been better prepared."

Johnson was represented by Atty. Justin Camper.

Story Posted:05/09/2022

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