Director of Government Reform
Today, former Dixon Comptroller Rita Crundwell was sentenced to 235 months – 19 years 7 months in prison.
Crundwell pleaded guilty to wire fraud and stealing more than $53 million from the city of Dixon during a period of more than 20 years; a shocking amount, even by Illinois standards.
Considering she lived high on the hog of taxpayer money for more than 20 years, the sentence seems not nearly long enough. But she still must face 60 separate state charges that may add to her prison time.
More importantly, taxpayers and lawmakers alike must ask what can be done in Illinois to prevent this type of fraud from ever happening again.
Central to the fraud Crundwell perpetrated on the people of Dixon was the fact that she was almost solely responsible for all of the accounting and treasury duties for the city. All local governments need to have multiple people responsible for the accounting and treasury duties.
Local governments can also enact proactive online transparency best practices like the Illinois Policy Institute’s 10-Point Transparency Checklist to protect against public fraud.
Another significant problem in Dixon that allowed Crundwell’s fraud to go unchecked for almost 20 years was the fact that the city’s website lacked transparency measures that would have given public watchdogs the opportunity to catch the crime much sooner.
The day that the Crundwell corruption scandal broke we did an audit of the city of Dixon’s website. We found the website lacked many key corruption fighting measures recommended in our 10-Point Transparency Checklist. In fact, Dixon only scored a 16.7 percent out of a possible 100 percent on our checklist.
Crundwell stole the sales and income tax funds Dixon was supposed to receive from the state of Illinois. If Dixon would have posted their revenues and expenditures online it would have taken only a few seconds to verify the totals posted on the Illinois Department of Revenue’s monthly disbursements on their website. It would have also discouraged Crundwell from committing the crime in the first place.
Will County Auditor Duffy Blackburn had the following to say about how proactive transparency is key in preventing future cases like the Crundwell case:
“Important to the discussion of preventing these type of events, beyond the specialized assistance with internal controls or proper segregation of duty or accounting work, is the perception of being somehow detected to someone who considers committing fraud.The perception of being detected is one of the strongest deterrents to fraud, according to fraud experts. This is why adopting a policy of transparency in governments, especially local governments, is so important. Transparency and continuous oversight are key tools in creating this type of perception, in addition to their benefits as good governing policy.”
Even city of Dixon officials recognize this now. Shortly after the scandal broke officials reached out to us and began working on improving their website transparency. They are now up to a more respectable 79 percent on our 10-Point Transparency Checklist, and they are working to score even higher.
It’s too late to prevent the Crundwell crime against the taxpayers of Dixon, but this situation is a stern warning to the rest of the country to enact better transparency standards before the next public fraud crisis strikes somewhere else.
image credit: AP Photo/The Telegraph, Alex T. Paschal