By Charles Hall, CPA, CFE
Is it possible for one person to steal over $53 million from a city with an annual budget of less than $10 million? Yes. The Rita Crundwell story provides a cautionary tale for small businesses, governments, and nonprofits.
So why did she steal? It appears Rita just enjoyed the good life. She used the money to fund one of the top quarter horse ranches in the country, and she did it with style: Some of the funds were used to purchase over $300,000 of jewelry and a $2.1 million motor coach vehicle.
The city’s annual budget? $6 to $8 million
Were yearly audits performed? Yes.
Were budgets approved? Yes.
But even with budgets and audits, the Dixon, Illinois scandal happened.
Too Much Trust
So how did this happen? Rita Crundwell won the trust of those around her—especially that of mayor and council. In April 2011, finance commissioner and veteran council member, Roy Bridgeman, praised Crundwell calling her “a big asset to the city as she looks after every tax dollar as if it were her own.” Too much trust in a bookkeeper can lead to huge problems.
It was a disturbing moment when Dixon Mayor James Burke presented the FBI with evidence of Crundwell’s fraud. Burke later recalled his emotions and words: “I literally became sick to my stomach, and I told him that I hoped my suspicions were all wrong.” Such a response is understandable given that Crundwell had worked for the city for decades. She had fooled everyone.
Secret Bank Account
According to the mayor, the city’s annual audits raised no red flags, and the city’s primary bank never reported anything suspicious. So how did she steal the money? In 1990, Crundwell opened a secret bank account in the name of the city (titled the RSDCA account: the initials stood for reserve sewer development construction account). Crundwell was the only authorized check signer for the account, and the RSDCA bank account was never set up on the city’s general ledger. The City’s records reflected none of the RSDCA deposits or disbursements.
Crundwell would write and sign manual checks from a legitimate city capital project fund checking account, completing the check payee line with “Treasurer.” (Yes, Crundwell had the authority to issue checks with just her signature—even for legitimate city bank accounts.) She would then deposit the check into her secret account. From the bank’s perspective, a transfer had been made from one city bank account to another (from the capital projects fund to the reserve sewer development construction fund).
While the capital project fund disbursement was recorded on the city’s books, the RSDCA deposit was not. A capital project fund journal entry was made for each check debiting capital outlay expense and crediting cash. But no entry was made to the city’s records for the deposit to the RSDCA account. Once the money was in the RSDCA account, Crundwell wrote checks for personal expenses—and she did so for over twenty years.
To complete her deceit, Crundwell provided auditors with fictitious invoices from the Illinois Department of Transportation; these invoices included the following notation: Please make checks payable to Treasurer, State of Illinois. (So the canceled checks made out to Treasurer agreed with directions on the invoice, but the words “State of Illinois” were conveniently left off the check payee line.) Remember Crundwell was the treasurer of Dixon.
Those invoices and the related checks were often for round dollar amounts (e.g., $250,000) and most were for more than $100,000. In one year alone, Crundwell embezzled over $5 million.
Vacation Leads to Arrest
So how was she caught? While Rita was on an extended vacation for horse shows, the city hired a replacement for her. For some reason, Crundwell’s substitute requested all bank account statements from the city’s bank. As the bank statements were reviewed, the secret bank account was discovered. And soon after that, the mayor contacted the FBI.
The Control Weakness
Why was Rita Crundwell able to steal $53 million? Wait for it. A lack of segregation of duties.
- Write checks
- Approve payments
- Create and monitor the budget
- Enter transactions into the accounting system
- Reconcile the bank statements
The Accounting Fix
Multiple people should perform accounting duties, not just one.
Moreover, accounting employees should annually take a one-week vacation (or longer). And while they are gone, someone else should perform the vacant person’s duties. The vacation itself is not the key to this control. The performance of the absent accountant’s duties is. Why? Doing so allows the replacement person to understand the work of the vacant employee. But, more importantly, the substitute can note any unusual or fraudulent activity.
Here’s another action to take: Periodically contact your organization’s bank and ask for a list of all bank accounts. Then compare the list to the bank accounts in your general ledger. If a bank account is not on the general ledger, see why. And request a copy of the related signature card from the bank.
What Happened to Rita Crundwell?
All the Queens Horses
Kelly Richmond Pope has masterfully captured the Rita Crundwell tale in the movie All the Queen’s Horses, available on Amazon. Think auditing is boring? Then watch the movie. It does a better job of explaining the psychological and financial damage of fraud than any textbook.
Charles Hall, CPA, CFE
Author of the self-study CPE books: