by Brian Costin
Illinois has long been known for corruption of government. Recently, a national public corruption study from University of Illinois-Chicago ranked the Northern District of Illinois as the most corrupt area in the nation. So it’s hardly shocking when we hear of another public corruption case. But the latest case of public corruption from the city of Dixon, Illinois in Lee County is definitely shocking, even by Illinois standards.
The Comptroller for the City of Dixon, Rita Crundwell, was arrested on April 17th by FBI agents on a federal charge for allegedly defrauding the City of Dixon of more than $3.2 million in public funds since just last fall, and more than $53 million since 2006.
For a small town of just under 16,000 the estimated fraud of $4 million to $5 million per year is a huge portion of the city's annual budget. Some media outlets have reported that the fraud would equal nearly HALF of Dixon’s annual budget of between $8 million to $9 million per year, but others have reported Dixon's annual budget at around $20 million. The fact that no financial audits or budgets exist on Dixon's website to indpendently verify budget numbers potentially reveals some insight as to why this fraud was able to go on for so long.
Here’s a sampling of a portion of the alleged fraud by Rita Crundwell revealed via the FBI investigation and criminal complaint.
- $2,500,000 in personal American Express charges, including over $339,000 in charges for jewelry.
- $2,108,000 for a 2009 Liberty Coach Motor Home.
- $450,000 horse farming operations expenses.
- $258,698 for a 2009 Featherlite Horse Trailer
- $146,787 for a 2009 Kenworth T800 Tractor Truck.
- $140,000 for a 2009 Freightliner Truck.
- $56,646 for a 2009 Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck.
And that information is just going back to 2006, Rita Crundwell has been the Comptroller for Dixon since the early 1980’s. It is possible that this has been going on even longer.
We should ask ourselves what can be done to prevent this type of fraud from occurring again, and how can responsible government officials begin to repair the damage done by yet another government corruption scandal?
Online transparency is one of the best tools available to local government agencies like the city of Dixon to prevent fraud. Transparency shines the light on government spending and not only deters government employees from committing fraud, it gives the public the opportunity to hold government accountable and expose corruption.
Dixon fails Local Transparency Project audit
When the Illinois Policy Institute heard of the fraud charges from Dixon we immediately conducted a Local Transparency Project audit of their website, and the results were hardly surprising. Our scoring of the www.discoverdixon.org showed it was one of the worst websites we’ve graded in the entire state. Out of more than 130 local government agencies, Dixon ranked in the bottom quartile on website transparency with a dismal 16.7 score out of a possible 100 points on our 10-Point Transparency Checklist.
The Dixon website failed to score any points in 8 out of the 10 categories of the checklist including all of the key corruption fighting categories which asks government to post annual budgets, financial audits, expenditures, and contracts with third-parties.
How transparency helps stop public corruption
A public posting of Dixon’s check register (expenditures) might have stopped the public corruption from happening in the first place. In September of 2011 alone Comptroller Rita Crundwell wrote 84 checks totaling $360,493.13 and most of which, according to the FBI complaint, appear to be for personal purposes.
When expenditures and other financial information is posted online it is an opportunity for elected officials, public employees, citizens, and the media to ask questions and expose potential wrongdoing. Transparency is crucially important in preventing, stopping, and exposing public corruption.
Comptroller Rita Crundwell isn’t the only one to blame in this case. Many others were responsible for creating a culture of which allowed the large levels of fraud to go undetected for at least 6 years. If the city of Dixon would have adopted the Illinois Policy Institute’s 10-Point Transparency Checklist, I believe it is highly unlikely this type of corruption would have gone on for so long without being noticed. It might have never happened in the first place.
Online transparency in Dixon would have greatly increased Rita Crundwell’s risks of committing fraud. If government employees known that all of the city’s financial transactions would be online for the taxpayers and the media to scrutinize they might think twice before defrauding the taxpayers.
Restoring public trust and accountability
We have reached out to the City of Dixon and have offered to help them implement the measures outlined in the 10-Point Transparency Checklist, as we did with Hanover Township after their public employee fraud scandal. Unfortunately, despite multiple emails and phone calls we have not heard back from any elected officials or administrators. We hope they reach out to partner with us on improving online transparency and preventing public corruption.
The Illinois Policy Institute is dedicated to assisting public administrators, elected officials and citizens, in Dixon and elsewhere, to improve proactive online transparency via the Local Transparency Project and the 10-Point Transparency Checklist.
I encourage Dixon's elected officials or employees to contact me at email@example.com or 312-346-5700 x205 to get started on restoring transparency and accountability for the citizens and taxpayers of Dixon.