- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2013

ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) — A former city bookkeeper was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison Thursday for embezzling more than $53 million from her Illinois community, in what ranks as one of the worst abuses of public trust in the state’s corruption-rich history.

Rita Crundwell, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud for embezzling money from the city of Dixon from 1991 until her arrest in April, tearfully apologized in a Rockford federal courtroom before U.S. District Judge Philip Reinhard sentenced her to 19 years and 7 months in federal prison — just shy of the maximum 20 years. She was taken into custody at the end of the hearing.

For more than two decades as Dixon’s comptroller, Crundwell siphoned city funds to fund a lavish lifestyle that included building what became a nationally renowned horse-breeding operation.

Crundwell’s apology to friends, family and the city, which is best known for being the site of Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home, marked her first public statements about her massive theft. Before she got to speak, Crundwell had to listen to people testify about the damage she had done.

Before sentencing her, Judge Reinhard told Crundwell that she cared more for her horses than the citizens of Dixon. He said his sentence means the 60-year-old Crundwell likely will remain locked up until she is 77.

Crundwell still faces 60 separate but related state felony charges for theft in Lee County. She has pleaded not guilty to those charges.

Crundwell was able to get away with her scheme for so long because she had sole control of the city’s finances for years and would hide the theft by producing fictitious invoices for things such as municipal sewer projects. All the while, she was spending the city’s money on her prize-winning horses, expensive jewelry, luxury cars and birthday bashes in Florida.

Prosecutors say Crundwell began stealing Dixon’s money in January 1991 and continued doing so until her arrest in April 2012. Authorities began investigating Crundwell in 2011 after she went on an extended vacation and a city employee filling in for her became suspicious. The mayor notified the FBI, which was able to monitor Crundwell as she continued stealing city funds for months.

The wire fraud count carried a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Crundwell’s public defender requested leniency, arguing for a punishment at the lower end of the sentencing guidelines, or around 13 years, while prosecutors sought a sentence closer to the maximum.

Crundwell was also ordered to pay full restitution — $53.7 million — as per the terms of her deal. Over the past several months, U.S. marshals have been auctioning off Crundwell’s fortunes, including houses, horses and jewelry, to raise restitution funds.

Crundwell had worked for the city about 100 miles west of Chicago since she was 17 and started to oversee public finances in the 1980s. The town’s residents are largely lower middle class, working at factories and grain farms. Prosecutors say residents came to trust her with the town’s finances, but she began stealing money in 1990 to support her extravagant way of life.

Authorities say Crundwell bought luxury homes and vehicles and spent millions on her horse-breeding operation, RC Quarter Horses LLC, which produced 52 world champions in exhibitions run by the American Quarter Horse Association.

Her scheme unraveled when a co-worker filling in during Crundwell’s vacation stumbled upon her secret bank account, prosecutors said.