Rita Crundwell stole more than $53 million in taxpayer funds during her 20 years as comptroller for the city of Dixon — a town of fewer than 16,000 people, roughly 100 miles west of Chicago. She used the money to buy multiple lavish properties and, most notably, prize quarter horses (one of her favorites was named, ironically, "She Scores").
Crundwell's embezzlement is the focus of a new documentary film, All the Queen's Horses, by Oak Park resident Kelly Richmond Pope, an accounting professor at DePaul University with an obvious flair for spinning a yarn.
Pope completed the film while in the inaugural cohort of Diverse Voices in Docs, a professional development and mentoring program for documentary filmmakers of color organized by Kartemquin Films, a Chicago-based production company, and the Community Film Workshop of Chicago.
Crundwell's theft allowed her to build a horse-breeding empire "all while forcing staff cuts, police budget slashing, and neglect of public infrastructure," according to a synopsis of the film on its web page.
Pope breaks down the mechanics of Crundwell's graft — possibly the largest case of municipal fraud in American history — in minute detail while never losing a grasp of its very human implications.
"This was a fascinating case because it was committed by just one perpetrator and she put the money into horses," Pope said during a phone interview last week. "She was the number one horse breeder in the country. That made this a little more intriguing than usual. Add the fact of where this crime happened and that makes it even more jaw-dropping."
While making the film, Pope immersed herself in territory that she said comes naturally — boxes and boxes of files from the FBI and U.S. Marshal Service. She also interviewed dozens of people close to the crime — from FBI agents who worked the case to former coworkers of Crundwell, who was sentenced to nearly 20 years in federal prison in 2013.
"Reading the deposition of an audit is very easy to me," said Pope, an expert in fraud research and white-collar crime.
The filmmaking process wasn't entirely foreign to the Oak Park professor. In 2012, Pope created, and was executive producer for, an educational film on white-collar crime called Crossing the Line: Ordinary People Committing Extraordinary Crimes, which has won multiple awards and is used as a teaching tool in classrooms across the world.
Queen's Horses is her first film to be picked up by a national distributor, Gravitas Ventures. So far, she said, interest in the film has grown both rapidly and organically. A trailer of the film, uploaded to Facebook, was viewed more than 140,000 times and garnered some 2,500 shares within five days, she said.
Pope has screened the film twice in Dixon (whose previous claim to fame was Ronald Reagan's hometown), attracting upwards of 2,000 each time, and she is planning screenings overseas in places like Australia and Amsterdam. The film has been an official selection at roughly a dozen national and international film festivals.
Its attraction is as universal as its message, Pope said.
"If it can happen in Dixon, it can and will and does happen wherever you are — whether at church, in the workplace or at a nonprofit — it is with you," she said. "Every place has the propensity to have fraud and everybody has the capacity to commit fraud."
But what is the main ingredient? What does Crundwell's crime have in common with all the other cases of fraud — from Madoff to Trump University?
"That one ingredient is called trust," Pope said. "We all trust people, but it has no internal control. Once we start trusting people, we relax the rules we put in place that help protect us."
Another ingredient, Pope added, is unqualified personnel thrust in positions of financial responsibility.
"Secondly, a lot of people are in oversight positions who don't understand and feel comfortable with numbers and that's dangerous," she said.
Pope's film is a cautionary tale for both would-be perpetrators and victims of fraud, but also a blueprint for preventing it.
If trust in others is the main ingredient in every fraud, trust in yourself is a main ingredient in sniffing out fraud and avoiding it altogether.
"If people suspect there is crime and corruption, oftentimes there is," Pope said. "If people are concerned that there is corruption, then I would follow that [instinct]. I would totally pay attention to those concerns because oftentimes where there is smoke, there is fire."
All the Queen's Horses will screen at the Lake Theatre, 1022 Lake St. in Oak Park, on Tuesday, May 1, at 10 a.m., 12 p.m. and 7 p.m. An audience Q&A featuring Pope will take place after each screening.
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