CHICAGO – An attorney for a former small-town Illinois bookkeeper who stole a staggering $53 million in public funds is arguing for a lenient prison sentence, saying the woman has cooperated with investigators since her arrest and must endure "disrepute and shame" for the rest of her life.
For more than two decades, Rita Crundwell, the former comptroller in the northern Illinois city of Dixon, which is best known as Ronald Reagan's boyhood home, used the stolen money to fund her nationally renowned horse-breeding operation and luxurious tastes. She's scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 14 for what federal prosecutors have called one of the most significant abuses of public trust ever in corruption-plagued Illinois. She faces up to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty in November to a felony count of wire fraud.
Crundwell, who had sole control of the city's finances for years, siphoned funds into a secret bank account and hid the scheme by producing fictitious invoices for things like municipal sewer projects. All the while, the money was going toward prize-winning horses, expensive jewelry, luxury cars and even birthday bashes in Venice Beach, Fla.
Sentencing guidelines that take into account Crundwell's acceptance of responsibility and lack of prior criminal history put the possible punishment at between 13 and 16 years in prison. Public defender Paul Gaziano is arguing for a sentence at the lower end of that range.
Prosecutors say it should be above the guidelines and have argued for closer to 20 years, though they haven't specified exactly what sentence they would like. They cite the length of the scheme, the elaborate steps Crundwell took to hide her trail and the hardships her theft caused to the people of Dixon and the local government, which lost the public's confidence and had to make sharp cutbacks because of budget shortfalls.
In a pre-sentencing memorandum filed Tuesday, Gaziano wrote, "Ms. Crundwell recognizes that the people of Dixon feel betrayed, bewildered and vengeful for her crime."
Gaziano cited Crundwell's age, saying a long sentence for the 60-year-old woman would amount to life in prison. He said the court should also take into consideration that Crundwell's crime did not involve violence and that since her arrest in April 2012 she has cooperated with authorities in selling off assets to go toward restitution, including her more than 400 prized quarter horses.
"The cooperation of Ms. Crundwell has been extraordinary," Gaziano wrote in the filing.
In their Jan. 31 court filing seeking a longer sentence, prosecutors noted that while Crundwell was stealing from the city, she repeatedly argued for painful spending cuts at budget meetings. She claimed the shortfalls were the result of an economic downturn and late payments from Illinois' state government, according to prosecutors.
"Day after day, for more than 20 years, [the] defendant would work with employees of the city of Dixon and interact with citizens in her capacity as comptroller while lying about the reason the city of Dixon lacked funds," U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro wrote.
The filing also laid out details about the impact of the theft: Police could not afford to upgrade squad car radios or make new hires, streets could not be resurfaced, a waste water treatment facility had to be delayed and the city had to issue $3 million in bonds to cover financial obligations.
In their filing, prosecutors included a news article about Crundwell's 2010 birthday party in Venice Beach. Paid for with the help of stolen money, the party had live music, prime rib and jumbo shrimp cocktails.
"Rita was gorgeous as always in one of her trademark 'must have' coats," said the article in GoHorseShow.com.