Updated Friday, February 15, 2013 at 10:03 PM
ROCKFORD, Ill. — A former city bookkeeper was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison Thursday for embezzling more than $53 million from her Illinois community, in what ranks as one of the worst abuses of public trust in the state’s corruption-rich history.
“You stole an astronomical amount of money from the city; you crippled the city,” U.S. District Judge Philip Reinhard told Rita Crundwell, as he sentenced her to 19 years and 7 months in federal prison. She was handcuffed and led away sobbing after he ordered her into custody immediately, saying he was concerned she could have money hidden and flee.
Crundwell, 60, pleaded guilty to wire fraud for embezzling money from the city of Dixon from 1991 until her arrest last April. She tearfully apologized in the Rockford federal courtroom.
“I am truly sorry to the city of Dixon, to my family and my friends,” Crundwell said.
For more than two decades as comptroller for Dixon, a northern Illinois community best known for being the site of Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home, Crundwell siphoned city funds to pay for properties, vacations, luxury cars and a horse-breeding operation that became nationally renowned.
“You showed a much greater passion for the welfare of your horses than you did for the people of Dixon who you represented,” the judge said before imposing a sentence that means Crundwell will not be eligible for release until she is 77.
Crundwell’s apology marked the first time she spoke publicly about her massive theft. Before she got her turn in court, she had to listen to people testify about the damage she had done.
Heads of various departments took turns describing how Crundwell’s scheme devastated the city.
Michael Stichter, superintendent of Dixon’s streets department, said miles of roads could not be resurfaced and aging vehicles could not be replaced. He said Crundwell told him repeatedly that the city did not have the money.
Crundwell still faces 60 separate but related state felony charges for theft in Lee County. She has pleaded not guilty to those charges.
The judge also ordered Crundwell to pay full restitution — $53.7 million — as per the terms of her deal, but prosecutors said they only expect to recover about $10 million of that. Over the past several months, U.S. Marshals have been auctioning off Crundwell’s assets, including houses, horses and jewelry.
ALEX T. PASCHAL / AP