Did you ever live near someone who seems to have endless amounts of money and wonder where they get it? Is their job that lucrative? Are they a trust fund baby? Good investments? Are they selling drugs? Or are they stealing from somewhere? You’ll never know because social mores preclude you from asking. When I lived in Germantown, Tennessee eight years ago, there was such a guy who live around the corner, just shy of thirty, speeding by the bus stop in his Bentley. Something seemed fishy and it turned out that it was according to several articles about him in The Commercial Appeal.
This was the same with Rita Crundwell, the treasurer and comptroller of Dixon, Illinois who committed the biggest municipal fraud in United States history. She stole $53 million dollars over twenty years to fund her lavish lifestyle and horse-breeding empire. Some in the town wondered where she got all of her money but they just figured it was owing to her success as a horse breeder. No one thought she was stealing the town blind.
I followed the story with incredulity as it appeared in The Chicago Tribune over the years, dumbfounded that a city comptroller/treasurer could embezzle such a huge sum of money with no one the wiser. While this sounds like fodder for a made-for-TV movie, it is actually material for a documentary being made right now, entitled All The Queens Horses. DePaul professor Kelly Richmond Pope, a forensic accountant, an expert in fraud and documentary moviemaker has been working on the film for a couple of years. Unlike Ms. Crundwell, who was flush with cash, Ms. Pope still needs to raise about $100,000 to finish her film.
The title of her film reminded me of another documentary that I’d been meaning to watch, The Queen of Versailles, made in 2012 by Lauren Greenfield. It is about one family’s quest to build the biggest single-family home in America. When pursuing entertainment, I like to follow a theme and the notion of gluttonous “queens” intrigued me. So in the week before I went to see a screening of All The Queens Horses, I overindulged on documentaries and movies about greedy “queens.” At my daughter’s suggestion, I added films about Marie Antoinette aka Madame Deficit to my list.
My bacchanalian feast of films began with The Queen of Versailles, which follows David and Jackie Siegel’s mission to build their 90,000 square feet dream palace. Siegel, of Westgate Timeshares, and his wife and eight children led a life of such excess you are practically choking while watching the film. “I would never have had this many kids,” Jackie says, “if I didn’t have all of these nannies to care for them.” At the time the filming began they had eight domestics working for them.
The family is impacted by the 2008 stock market crash and the documentary ends up focusing not on the stalled house construction but follows their struggles both personal and financial. “I told the kids they may have to go to college and get jobs,” Jackie says to the camera.
The next three courses of my feast were spent devouring two documentaries about Marie Antoinette and the historical drama starring Kirsten Dunst. My favorite was Marie Antoinette, The Last Queen of France made by David Grubin. It was well done and since I knew nothing about the French Revolution, fascinating. There were very few actors, which I have come to dread in these historical documentaries. Most of the story was told with rich and luscious paintings and engravings that illustrated her fall so beautifully.
After the beauty of the Marie Antoinette movies, I found myself suffering through the 1990 Leona Helmsley: Queen of Mean movie based on a book by the same name only by sipping Queen of Hearts pinot noir. While Suzanne Pleshette gave an Emmy and Golden Globe nominated performance of the Helmsley Palace Hotel magnate, I had to cover my eyes over the romantic scenes as Leona slept and clawed her way through successively richer and older husbands until she ended up with the “King,” Harry Helmsley. Leona, a billionaire at this point, ends up in jail for tax evasion because as she so famously said, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”
The crème de la crème of this feast was watching a screening of the partially made All The Queen’s Horses during the Kartemquin Spring Showcase at The Gene Siskel Film Center. I went to the screening wanting to know about Rita Crundwell, the perp. I wanted to know what she was thinking. I wanted to see the horseshoe tiled into her shower floor and her $2 million motor coach. In the panel discussion after the film, Ms. Pope stated that she had no plans at this time to interview Ms. Crundwell for the film because that is not what this film is about. It’s about what this theft did to the town of Dixon. It shows what can happen when a town doesn’t have sound internal controls.
What is scary to me is that unlike the Penn State situation, where it was well known what Jerry Sandusky was doing, no one in Dixon knew the money was missing. The townspeople thought they’d hit hard times like the rest of the country. Rita, an $80,000 a year public employee who was living high on the hog, was not a suspect because no one knew anything was amiss. Ms. Pope wants us to know that this could and may well be happening in towns and cities all over the country.
While Dixon was cutting costs by closing its pools, Ms. Crundwell was using the town’s money to put a spare-no-expense pool and sauna in her back yard. She drove to her job on the town’s unrepaired streets while she bedecked herself in jewels and bought hundreds of horses for her horse breeding empire.
There is certainly no poetic justice in the fact that Ms. Pope may need to beg, borrow but not steal to finish a film that will educate the public and may well save towns and cities from losing millions of dollars to embezzlers. If you’d like to donate so that she can finish her film, please click here.
Kathleen Thometz is an artist, writer and founder of Doodle Art & Design, a lunchtime elementary school art program and summer camp. Check it out on Facebook! She lives with her husband, kids and three doodle dogs: Rainbow, Sunshine and Thunderstorm. You can experience more about her at www.kathleenthometz.com