How a Small-Town Municipal Employee Embezzled Enough Money to Turn Herself Into a World-Class Horse Breeder and Got Away With It for Decades | Film Spotlight | Indy Week

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How a Small-Town Municipal Employee Embezzled Enough Money to Turn Herself Into a World-Class Horse Breeder and Got Away With It for Decades

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Rita Crundwell, a comptroller in Dixon, Illinois, embezzled $53 million from the small city's coffers over the course of decades. The largest municipal fraud ever recorded in U.S. history, it wrecked Dixon's economy. Even more improbable is what she did with the money. Crundwell, an unassuming government employee by day, turned herself into one of the world's leading quarter horse breeders by night. A jetsetter who spent millions on luxury motor homes, cars, clothes, jewelry, and ranches, she also owned dozens of world-champion show horses.

After her arrest, many media accounts focused on the sensational: the nearly eight hundred trophies, the four hundred horses, the champagne lifestyle of fur coats and lavish parties. After Crundwell pleaded guilty in 2012 and was sentenced to twenty years in prison in 2013, the media furor died down. But how was she able to steal so much money, unnoticed, for so long that the city of Dixon had to slash its budget and borrow to keep afloat?

New documentary All the Queen's Horses, which has a free screening at N.C. State on March 19, aims to answer that question without glamorizing or diagnosing the perpetrator, sidestepping the sensational aspects of the case to explore the conditions that created the opportunity for Crundwell to embezzle so much. According to the film's director and producer, Kelly Richmond Pope, those conditions aren't unique to Dixon. They mirror what fraud investigators around the country frequently find: a trusted person controlling all aspects of an organization's financial management, a lack of institutional financial literacy, and few internal controls.

Kelly Richmond Pope - PHOTOS COURTESY OF KARTEMQUIN FILMS
  • Photos courtesy of Kartemquin Films
  • Kelly Richmond Pope

"This is not the Rita Crundwell story. This is the story of how a person can execute a fraud like this, how it can happen anywhere and be committed by anyone," Pope says. It's a story that Pope, a Durham native who is now a professor of accounting at Chicago's DePaul University, is uniquely suited to tell. Along with her teaching and research, she has worked as a forensic accountant who investigates fraud and embezzlement.

At N.C. State, Pope will be present to answer questions after the screening. This is her first foray into long-form documentary filmmaking. She had made some educational films as a teaching aid, but she developed All the Queen's Horses as part of Kartemquin Films' Diverse Voices in Docs program. The Chicago-based company coproduced and is distributing the film.

Pope hopes it will start a conversation about the dangers of municipal fraud in communities across the country. While it can seem like a distant issue or become obscured by titillating details, it has real impact on citizen's lives.

It's an issue that has hit close to home in the Triangle recently. Last December, Wake County Register of Deeds Laura Riddick was indicted, along with three others, of embezzling $1.1 million.

"These frauds cost us all," Pope says. "They erode our sense of government and our participation in the processes that we all have to pay for. The powerful message in this film is that we all have a Rita in our organization."

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