John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Walters stole nearly $50 million from the District of Columbia, but Crundwell allegedly ganked more than half that amount in a town with a budget of only $8 million.
UPDATE MAY 1: True to one of our commenters below, who swore that this "isn't over yet," the amount that Rita Crundwell is said to have embezzled from Dixon has nearly doubled. An indictment has it that she stole $53 million since 1990, according to the Chicago Tribune. That puts her way above the illegal take of D.C.'s Harriette Walters. Congratulations, America: We have a new Municipal Embezzlement Queen!
ORIGINAL: As far as gigantic embezzlement schemes go, the case of Rita Crundwell is a doozy.
The FBI alleges that Crundwell used her position as comptroller of Dixon, Illinois, to steal about $30 million in public funds over six years. The feds charge that she did so to support her horse-breeding business, which has stamped out several world-championship winners. (Read the criminal complaint for yourself!) If true, the breadth of Crundwell's scheme is simply amazing, given that the miniscule town 100 miles west of Chicago has an annual budget of only $8 to $9 million.
But is it as amazing as the criminal saga of Harriette Walters, up until now America's undisputed Municipal Embezzlement Queen? The former manager at Washington, D.C.'s Office of Tax and Revenue used a network of friends and family to steal $48 million. No other female embezzler has hit a government so hard. (Men are another matter.) Walters is serving a 17.5-year prison sentence in a high-security prison in West Virginia, no doubt reflecting on the scammy mojo that landed her there in the first place.
To determine who reigns supreme in this battle of the embezzlers, let's compare a few facts:
Walters: An embezzler's history can suggest a lot about their motives for stealing later in life. So who had the better excuse for ganking all that money? In Walters' case, she suffered "childhood traumas" that led her down the path of substance abuse and gambling addiction, according to her lawyer. In the 1970s, she worked as a cook at a fast-food restaurant on D.C.'s Massachusetts Avenue NW. Dealing with foul-tempered customers, trudging home each day smelling like fry oil – one can understand why Walters would develop a yen for (illegal) upward striving.
Crundwell: She's been working for Dixon ever since taking a part-time government job as a teenager. (She's in her late 50s now.) To believe the media coverage thus far, there's no sob story to account for her alleged criminal acts as the city's CFO. Maybe her decades of office life has left her with a bad case of carpal-tunnel syndrome that twisted her judgment?
Walters: 1. Crundwell: 0.
BREADTH OF SCAM
Walters: She committed the District's largest-ever act of embezzlement over the course of 18 long years. Walters involved 11 other people in her rip-off plan, including relatives.
Crundwell: It's hard to see how any embezzlement scheme in little ol' Dixon could be bigger. But the FBI has yet to name any co-defendants, and until that happens it looks like Crundwell acted alone.
Walters: 2. Crundwell: 0.
Walters: She accumulated what the Washington Post called a "wardrobe of a princess," stuffing her modest home with dozens of pairs of shoes, 13 watches, jewelry, designer luggage, a mink coat and some 90 purses from Gucci, Louis Vuitton and the like. Walters also bought a "pair of silver-plated iguana figurines, a silverware set, a Rolex watch and a silver bar cart," plus a "Faberge egg." She also had a house in the Virgin Islands.
Crundwell: See that luxe interior above? That is the inside of a 2009 Liberty Coach "Elegant Lady XL" motor home, similar to the $2.1 million motor home that Crundwell is said to have purchased with stolen funds. Forget the breakfast bar and rustic wood floor – who the heck pays $2.1 million for a motor home? Crundwell partly redeems herself by also acquiring a Silverado pickup truck, a Ford Thunderbird and $340,000 in jewelry. But the bulk of her cash allegedly went toward the expansion of her horse stables in Illinois and Beloit, Wisconsin. (The website for her Meri-J Ranch has gone down.) For non-horse people, this sounds kind of stupid; what is it with embezzlers and horses, anyway? Anyway, if you include the prizes she got for one of her horsey competitions, Crundwell also made off with a pair of Justin Techno Crepe smooth ostrich boots and 100 pounds of Nutrena feed.
Walters: 3. Crundwell: 0.
Walters: She liked to spread the wealth around, and did so in a supremely gutsy manner. In fact, her brazeness was to a large degree responsible for the success of her embezzlement scheme. According to the Journal of Business Case Studies:
Walters, a frequent Bank of America (BOA) customer, solicited various bank tellers to assist with cashing and depositing the checks. Over time, she gave gifts to various tellers to earn their trust and for their cooperation in cashing and depositing the checks. By 1994, when the stolen funds increased to $1.2 million (a nearly fivefold increase over the $246,000 taken in 1993), Walters recognized the need to have a trusted bank employee with supervisory duties to assist with cashing and depositing the checks.
In walked Walter Jones (Jones), a newly hired, young, impressionable 20-year-old manager, eager to provide superior customer service to the bank’s clients, especially those with large depository accounts. Walters, preying on his youth and position of power, quickly befriended Jones and starting offer $100 gifts to him. Jones, knowing that accepting such gifts was against bank policy, initially declined. However, Walters persisted and gradually eroded Jones’ resistance to the point until he began to routinely accept gifts of up to $1,000 per visit from Walters. By 2000, Walters had ensnared Jones in her scheme to cash and deposit the checks.
Crundwell: It's unknown if she slid any money over to associates, but it is quite ballsy to allegedly steal more money than a town is worth per year. How on earth did nobody notice this? Crundwell also is said to have committed her embezzling while enjoying a $83,400 annual salary and raking in farm subsidies of $19,986 from 1995 through 2010, which is a nice piece of work.
Walters: 3. Crundwell: 1.
Walters: Her thievery left a humongous dent on the District's treasure chest, although it's hard to put a human face on any suffering she caused.
Crundwell: The Chicago Tribune reports that Dixon has suffered budget cuts in the past few years. Also, "the public pool had been closed the last few summers." Damn it, Crundwell, you're keeping the kids cooped up with their parents all summer!
Walters: 3. Crundwell: 2.
You go, Harriette Walters: Your embezzlement cred is battered but still intact.