The Rita Crundwell Story: Why Some Ranches Have a Bad Smell

Day 19 of 30 Days of Fraud

Is it possible for one person to steal over $53 million from a city with an annual budget of less than $10 million? Yes. The Rita Crundwell story provides a cautionary tale for small businesses, governments, and nonprofits.

The Theft

Rita Crundwell, comptroller, and treasurer of Dixon, Illinois stole $53 million over a twenty-year period. The city of 16,000 residents held Crundwell in high esteem. One friend described her as “sweet as pie.” Another said: “You could not find a nicer person.”

So why did she steal? It appears Rita just enjoyed the good life. She used the money to fund one of the top quarter horse ranches in the country, and she did it with style: Some of the funds were used to purchase over $300,000 of jewelry and a $2.1 million motor coach vehicle.

Rita Crundwell story

The picture is courtesy of AdobeStock.com

Her annual salary? $80,000.

The city’s annual budget? $6 to $8 million

Were yearly audits performed? Yes.

Were budgets approved? Yes.

So how could this happen? Ms. Crundwell had won the trust of those around her—especially that of mayor and council. In April 2011, finance commissioner and veteran council member, Roy Bridgeman, praised Crundwell calling her “a big asset to the city as she looks after every tax dollar as if it were her own.” (Too much trust is the main cause of white-collar crime.)

It was a disturbing moment when Dixon Mayor James Burke presented the FBI with evidence of Crundwell’s fraud. Burke later recalled his emotions and words: “I literally became sick to my stomach, and I told him that I hoped my suspicions were all wrong.” Such a response is understandable given that Crundwell had worked for the city for decades. She had fooled everyone.

According to the mayor, the city’s annual audits raised no red flags, and the city’s primary bank never reported anything suspicious. So how did she steal the money? In 1990, Crundwell opened a secret bank account in the name of the city (titled the RSDCA account: the initials stood for reserve sewer development construction account). Crundwell was the only authorized check signer for the account, and the RSDCA bank account was never set up on the city’s general ledger. The City’s records reflected none of the RSDCA deposits or disbursements.

Crundwell would write and sign manual checks from a legitimate city capital project fund checking account, completing the check payee line with “Treasurer.” (Yes, Crundwell had the authority to issue checks with just her signature—even for legitimate city bank accounts.) She would then deposit the check into her secret account. From the bank’s perspective, a transfer had been made from one city bank account to another (from the capital projects fund to the reserve sewer development construction fund).

While the capital project fund disbursement was recorded on the city’s books, the RSDCA deposit was not. A capital project fund journal entry was made for each check debiting capital outlay expense and crediting cash. But no entry was made to the city’s records for the deposit to the RSDCA account. Once the money was in the RSDCA account, Crundwell wrote checks for personal expenses—and she did so for over twenty years.

To complete her deceit, Crundwell provided auditors with fictitious invoices from the Illinois Department of Transportation; these invoices included the following notation: Please make checks payable to Treasurer, State of Illinois. (So the canceled checks made out to Treasurer agreed with directions on the invoice, but the words “State of Illinois” were conveniently left off the check payee line.) Remember Crundwell was the treasurer of Dixon. 

Those invoices and the related checks were often for round dollar amounts (e.g., $250,000) and most were for more than $100,000. In one year alone, Crundwell embezzled over $5 million.

So how was she caught? While Rita was on an extended vacation for horse shows, the city hired a replacement for her. For some reason, Crundwell’s substitute requested all bank account statements from the city’s bank. As the bank statements were reviewed, the secret bank account was discovered. And soon after that, the mayor contacted the FBI.

The Weakness

Why was Rita able to steal $53 million? Wait for it…a lack of segregation of duties (getting tired of my saying this?–sorry, but so many thefts are rooted in this weakness).

Rita could do the following:

  • Write checks
  • Approve payments
  • Create and monitor the budget
  • Enter transactions into the accounting system
  • Reconcile the bank statements

The Fix

Multiple people should perform accounting duties, not just one person.

Accounting employees should be required to take at least a one-week vacation, and while they are gone, someone else should perform their duties. The vacation itself is not the key. The performance of the absent accountant’s duties is. Why? Doing so allows the replacement person to understand the work of the vacant employee. And, more importantly, as the substitute employee works, he or she sees any unusual or fraudulent activity.

Here’s another action to take. Periodically contact your organization’s bank and ask for a list of all bank accounts. Then compare the list to the bank accounts set up on the general ledger. If a bank account is not on the general ledger, see why. Request a copy of the related signature card from the bank.

What Happened to Rita?

So, what happened to Rita? She was sentenced to 19.5 years in prison. Here are pictures from the Chicago Tribune that shed light on the fraud.

Learn from the CPA Scribo newsletter!

Get my free weekly accounting and auditing digest with the latest content.

Powered by ConvertKit

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Darren J Landry says:

    I’ve actually caught a similar situation when I first cutting my teeth as an auditor. I just happened to notice a check written to a bank recorded to Miscellaneous Expense for $100. I actually got chastised for wasting time on an account with a clearly immaterial balance. Keep in mind this was pre-SAS 99 and not a governmental audit. However, I just couldn’t figure out why anyone would write a small check to a bank, so I ate the time and went against management’s “better judgement”.

    When I confronted the person about the check she calmly said, “It was to open a new bank account for the Organization. Was that supposed to go on the books?” About 3/4 million traveled through that account within half a year. None of the amounts were recorded on the company’s ledger…except for the $100 to miscellaneous.

    Seems logical to me now. However, when you’re young and just getting started in your career, management is watching your billable time like a hawk. Also, I didn’t have their support so it was very unnerving.

  • Darren, very interesting. Good that you followed up on your intuition. Audit firms can indeed focus too much on time budgets. Thanks for sharing.