As interns for All the Queen’s Horses, a documentary film about the largest municipal fraud in United States history, we wanted to share our experience. Our love for film and our heavy interest in entering the film industry made us exceptionally excited right off the bat, but from there, the excitement only grew.
Our first day began by meeting the team, being introduced to the film, and then heading over to Kartemquin Film to watch the rough cut with Kelly Richmond Pope. During the screening, Gordon Quinn, a producer on the film and producer of other groundbreaking documentaries like Hoop Dreams and Vietnam, Long Time Coming, critiqued the rough cut, and it was incredible. He gave the crew tips on how to improve it, was very detail oriented, and provided wonderful insight. It was a glimpse into the filmmaking process that felt too good to be true. It was unforgettable, captivating, and we learned so much.
Day two began with a two-hour drive to Dixon, Illinois, that felt like two minutes. Being with the crew on a trip to ground zero, hearing the palpable passion in their every word, made it go by in a blink. Once there, we spent the day interviewing people, doing pickup shots, and turning Gordon Quinn’s feedback into a reality. We heard first-hand accounts from Dixon residents who were there when the fraud took place, and learned about what life has been like in the four years since.
During another trip to Dixon, we sat in on a city council meeting. It was captivating to watch the citizens come in and share their thoughts on ways to improve the town, a sense of community involvement you definitely don’t see everywhere. It inspired us and showed us how we can get involved in our own hometowns.
At the city council meeting, we saw Kathe Swanson, the whistleblower who spotted Rita Crundwell’s fraud and brought it to the attention to the authorities. We were star-struck! It’s possible that the fraud could still be going on if it weren’t for her! We also took a trip all the way to Alabama to meet with one of Rita’s old competition friends, another example of the necessary above and beyond mentality one needs to have to paint the full picture, which is a documentary filmmaking essential.
The hours were long, well past normal office hours, but it gave us a great idea of how challenging filmmaking is, from pre- to post-production. It showcased a larger truth, a truth that applies to all art forms: Without hard work, a great idea remains just that – an idea.
The documentary filmmaking process is particularly difficult in terms of content, as you only get what people are willing to divulge in the interviews alongside archival footage, newspapers, and photos. Unlike a scripted plot, you have to rely on the graciousness of others and their willingness to put themselves out there. In fact, Rita Crundwell, who would otherwise be a documentary film antagonist legend in the making, refuses to be interviewed. You need a good eye, patience, adaptability, and drive. We’re so thankful to have learned that truth the easy way — from people who already possess those qualities and more — rather than the hard way.
We really bonded with the entire crew, and it’s sad that our internship has come to a close. However, it was a life changing experience, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we could not be more thankful for the chance to work on this important project and meet such awe-inspiring people.
Team ATQH, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. It was an amazing journey.
Written by Michael Epifani
There is a bright side and a dark side to many major changes in government, and few understand that better than the residents of Dixon, Illinois.
On November 14, 2012, Rita Crundwell pled guilty to embezzling the city in the amount of a staggering $53.7 million over the course of 22 years as comptroller and treasurer. In a town with an annual budget of $6 million to $8 million, to call the crime egregious would be putting it lightly, especially when service cuts and suspension of raises were required as Dixon struggled to meet its debt obligations. As the largest municipal fraud in American history, the early wake of the scandal was understandably tumultuous, as citizens and city officials alike demanded answers, retribution, and an assurance that controls and oversights would be put in place to ensure that nothing like this would happen again.
Four years later, the destruction of Hurricane Rita has evolved from public outcry to real change. With the fourth and final auction of Rita’s assets closed and a new system of government put in place, the city of Dixon has taken big strides in moving forward, and the citizens are beginning to feel more confident in their government. The public awareness and the collaboration of efforts from both average citizens and elected officials have created a bright side to the very dark side of the jaw-dropping scandal. From rollercoaster to long road ahead, the future of Dixon is looking brighter by the day.
After four electronic auctions, all of Rita Crundwell’s known assets have been sold, with total profits of around $10 million. While that is a drop in the bucket compared to $53.7 million, the city of Dixon also received $40 million from a settlement with the bank (Fifth Third) and auditor that failed to catch her 22-year-long crime as it occurred. The auctions were specifically done electronically for transparency purposes. Dixon residents could see what was on sale and how much items were being sold for without having to physically sit at the auction.
It took almost three years to collect every asset that Rita had acquired over the course of two decades, which was made even more difficult when you consider how much the upkeep and maintenance of her 300 quarter horses must have been. After selling the horses, three homes, luxury motor vehicles, recreational vehicles, sports memorabilia, equestrian and general horse-related equipment and accessories, electronics, furs, buckles, and literally everything she owned — in addition to the settlement — the city has recuperated about $50 million (before fees) of the $53.7 million, but that doesn’t mean Rita is almost square. As her horses would say, “Nay;” quite the opposite. In fact, Rita had the audacity to claim that the 700 trophies she won as a world-champion quarter horse breeder and trainer should be exempt from the auction since they have more sentimental value than monetary value, but that was met with a resounding scoff. The trophies were sold along with everything else.
Despite no longer owning the quarter horses, Crundwell has been receiving breeder royalties of $13,000 to $14,000 per year since being incarcerated. The government has been able to freeze the assets, and as long as the horses that she bred are being shown, the royalties — many quarter horses live well over 20 years — will continue. However, over time, the royalties will weaken as the horses age and/or pass away.
While they cannot access the royalty funds at this time, efforts are being made to do so, which will continue to pay off part of what she owes to the city. Not only will they be able to access the funds and transfer it to the city of Dixon, the royalties will be diverted to the city going forward. Furthermore, US Marshal Jason Wojdylo, chief inspector of the Asset Forfeiture Division, says that the government is looking for leads on additional assets that they may not know about.
Almost 80 cents on the dollar (after fees) is a pretty great conclusion relative to other victims of fraud, though officials are hopeful that more money will be seized as more information surfaces.
The funds recuperated from Rita’s embezzlement have been carefully considered for allocation and will be used in various areas to benefit the city. $21.25 million will go towards debt repayment, getting the city out of the hole that caused layoffs and a suspension of raises. $8 million will be allocated to the city’s reserves ($5 million operating and $3 million capital), which will make for a nice cushion moving forward. $15,000 will go towards the Sister Cities Association, and $7,745 towards Dixon tourism. These are conservative and carefully executed steps towards a solid foundation moving into the future.
However, there are also some fund allocations that the residents will actually be able to see put to use in the immediately future. $1 million will be used for the East River Street sewer and re-pavement project, a municipality necessity that has been one of the most aired concerns by residents in City Hall meetings. $1.2 million will go towards library repairs, $40,000 to the repair and maintenance of boat docks, $26,000 to Christmas decorations, $22,000 to Dixon Main Street, and $15,000 to The Next Picture Show, a non-profit fine arts center.
In 2014, the late former Mayor of Dixon, Jim Burke, expressed that there would be a particular focus on economic development, education, infrastructure, and recreation. While the residents are understandably hesitant to put any real trust in their local government for the time being, the structural change in the government combined with public awareness and involvement, as well as the decidedly agreeable allocation of funds at this juncture, leave little doubt that the city will bounce back.
In an overwhelming majority, the residents of Dixon voted to transition to a new form of government by hiring a city manager. Not only that, but their four-term, sixteen-year mayor, Jim Burke (who passed away February 19, 2016), decided not to run in the 2015 election and was replaced. During that election year, the entire city council was voted off and replaced with new members, and in November of 2015, Cole O’Donnel was unanimously approved as the new (and first) city manager of Dixon. The entire overhaul of the government is an overt indication that the residents were heard loud and clear.
By hiring a city manager, more oversight will be put in place; from a management position, a member of the government will be able to catch any red flags before they turn into red numbers. This ensures that everyone in positions of power in the Dixon government have an additional set of eyes. The change is specifically geared towards not only catching any fraud or embezzlement, but also deterring it.
The new mayor, Liandro Arellano, who is an Iraq War veteran and local business owner, is excited about the possibilities that lay ahead. His goals include unifying the city, restoring trust in the government, encouraging more involvement by average citizens, and collaborating with the new city council members and the city manager to improve the city in its every facet.
Rita Crundwell is currently serving her sentence of 19 years and seven months in the all-female Federal Correctional Institution, Waseca. She shares the low-security facility with 1,069 other inmates, and while she is one of the most notable for her outrageous white-collar crime, she shares the cafeteria with Kristen Parker, who, as a heroin addict, caused the infection of almost 20 people with Hepatitis C, swapping clean syringes in the hospital she worked in with syringes contaminated with the virus. Rita also shares hallways with Shelley Shannon, who was sentenced to 10 years for the attempted murder of an abortion doctor in Kansas, and pled guilty to firebombing six abortion clinics in three other states. It’s safe to say that Rita is where she belongs, living among people whom, like her, negatively affected the lives of unsuspecting and innocent people.
Rita is still required to pay the rest of the $53.7 million she owes, despite the settlement from the bank and auditors. That puts her tally at around $43.7 million. She is set to be released from prison in 2030 at the age of 77.