The story of the nation’s largest case of municipal embezzlement finally hit the big screen in Illinois, with the debut of All the Queen’s Horses in Dixon.
The subject seemed irresistible for a filmmaker: a bottomless well of money, corruption at city hall, gold-plated extravagance -- and horses. But filmmaker Kelly Richmond Pope had another reason for being drawn to the story of Rita Crundwell, Dixon’s former comptroller who stole nearly $54 million from her hometown.
Pope didn’t take the usual path to becoming a filmmaker. The director of “All the Queen’s Horses” is an accounting professor at DePaul and a behavioral accounting researcher. She’s fascinated with why people become whistleblowers -- especially how a person behaves in “a situation with conflict.”
That conflict was between Dixon City Clerk Kathe Swanson and City Comptroller Rita Crundwell. Swanson was filling in for Crundwell in 2011 when she discovered a secret bank account. Crundwell funneled tens of millions of Dixon’s dollars into that account over two decades, using it to establish herself as one of the world’s greatest – and most glamorous – quarterhorse breeders.
Swanson went to Dixon Mayor Jim Burke with her discovery, and he contacted the FBI. The two had to continue to work with Crundwell as if nothing was wrong for another six months while the FBI built its case. In the end, Crundwell was arrested, pleaded guilty to embezzling $53.7 million, was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison, and had all of her possessions auctioned off.
The crowd at All the Queen’s Horses public premiere in Dixon appreciated how Pope put the amount of restitution Crundwell owes into perspective: She said Crundwell owed more than $100 million and, based on her $65 monthly prison salary, it would take her more than 120,000 years to pay it back.
Pope says Kathe Swanson is the film’s hero – she even got to present Swanson the ethical courage award from the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy during one screening at the Historic Dixon Theatre.
The Chicago-based filmmaker says she was nervous watching the hometown crowd react as they saw her documentary for the first time because, “It’s not about ‘Rita’s a bad person, remove Rita, she’s in jail, and now everything is okay.’"
"Everyone played a role in this, and the citizens played a role, too," Pope said. "I didn’t know how they would feel about the way I felt like I might be calling them out or the way I portrayed Dixon. So I was nervous. I was very nervous.”
Pope didn’t have to worry. She got a great response from the local audience during the two-day run, mixing some humor into a subject Dixon residents haven’t found very funny.
Pope wanted audiences from Dixon to Los Angeles to New York City to see something familiar in this story, and to understand that $54 million in fraud can happen anywhere.
“I never wanted to portray Dixon as this rural backwards community," she said. "I never wanted to do that. So we were very intentional about how we edited, the shots that we took. We wanted it to be portrayed as beautiful as it is. So I think that we represented the town with dignity and the respect that I felt like it deserved.”
Pope’s personable style, interspersed with lots of easy-to-understand graphics, makes the medicine of fraud prevention go down a little easier.
Gordon Quinn, founder of Chicago-based not-for-profit Kartemquin Films and executive producer of "All The Queen’s Horses," said, “I felt this was a really important story. We make films because we want them to have consequences in the world.”
Quinn met Pope through Kartemquin’s Diverse Voices In Docs program. “We wanted to see something that would really focus people, and focus people on the municipal level around this danger of fraud and embezzlement,” he said.
That’s why Pope is taking her film beyond the usual theater venues. She’s also booking showings in business schools, so she can take the message to her fellow accountants -- the people who could follow in Kathe Swanson’s footsteps someday. When they discover something suspicious in the books, Pope wants them to remember what happened in Dixon and blow the whistle.
"All The Queen’s Horses" begins a two-week runNov. 10 at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. It’s expected to air on PBS stations in Illinois, and the filmmakers are looking at their options for national distribution. Meanwhile, screenings can be requested through the film’s website, allthequeenshorsesfilm.com.
On Valentine's Day 2013, Rita Crundwell originally was sentenced to 19½ years in federal prison. She began her sentence at Waseca Federal Correctional Institution, a minimum-security prison in Minnesota, but has been transferred to Federal Medical Center Carswell, near Fort Worth, Tex., according to prison records. Crundwell, now 64, is scheduled for release on March 5, 2030.