Overview: A city comptroller in small town Illinois perpetrated the largest case of municipal fraud—some $53 million; Kartemquin Films; 2017; NR; 71 minutes.
Small Town: Dixon, Illinois (pop. 15,135) is quintessential small-town America. The town sits a bit more than an hour and a half west of Chicago and used to be most well-known as the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan (know those pictures of a young Reagan lifeguarding? That’s Dixon). At least until 2011, when a city employee noticed a strange discrepancy in some bank paperwork and stumbled headlong onto a co-worker’s $53 million secret. For more than 20 years, Municipal Comptroller Rita Crundwell supplemented a lavish lifestyle (much of it in the wealthy world of quarter horse breeding) and pulled off the largest ever case of municipal fraud in the country. Much of this documentary’s runtime is comprised of some granular (but still accessible) lessons in fraudulent accounting. It’s also an interesting post-mortem of how fraud like that could go undetected for so long. Accounting experts and law enforcement are brought in to explain the significance of the event, and city leaders and Crundwell’s co-workers weigh in on effects on the city. The film is strong in these moments, but the more compelling to me are the personal stories. How does it feel to know someone, to work alongside them for twenty years and discover this degree of deception? The responses vary, but each is characteristically midwestern; taking personal responsibility and offering straightforward answers— “It was just how my parents raised me.” For a film that offers up such a grim look at the machinations of a city servant, the sting is somewhat offset by the “still good people in the world” feeling that somehow still runs through the story.
Big Greed: As a documentary subject, white collar crime remains resolutely unflashy, save for some coke-filed outliers like The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short—even in this new era of true crime podcasting and Netflix binges. But that’s a shame, because it’s evident this film was made with rigorous attention to detail and some righteous indignation. The film was directed and produced by Kelly Richmond Pope, an Associate Professor of Accounting at DePaul University. Pope shows up periodically in the film for brief explainers of some of the more wonky aspects of the dirty accounting without acknowledging her role in the film itself. It’s exciting when a documentary made by a woman takes off, so I’d love to have heard from Pope about what made her home in on this story and make the film. One other minor quibble I had with the storytelling is that there was so little emphasis on what made Crundwell tick, which—as a non-numbers person—remained a constant question throughout. While a note at the end of the film explains that Crundwell refused to be interviewed, I would have loved to have seen those who knew her weigh in on the person they knew versus the person who committed this crime. But that’s a personal preference and I can understand why an accountant-director would naturally gravitate more toward the financial aspects of the story. One of the most direct lines between Crundwell’s theft and its effect on the small town is when Pope shows us what city services had to be cut (and their dollar amount) versus the amount of money Crundwell stole that year. It’s one thing to think about fraud in the abstract; it’s another to see the line item slashes to a fire department budget and employee layoffs the same year Crundwell purchased a $2.1 million motor coach for herself.
Overall: Those with an interest in government accountability and white-collar crime, and who appreciate straightforward storytelling, will enjoy this film.
Featured Image: Helios Digital Learning/Kartemquin Films