(MCT) — CHICAGO — Former Dixon comptroller Rita Crundwell plans to plead guilty Wednesday to a federal fraud charge that alleges she siphoned more than $53 million from the small northwestern Illinois city’s coffers, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
The office released a statement saying Crundwell will change her plea to guilty at a morning hearing in federal court in Rockford.
The move by Crundwell, 59, came as no surprise to Dixon Mayor Jim Burke, who said he last saw Crundwell when he left her with FBI agents at City Hall in April.
“(The agents) told me, ‘This will either take a few minutes or a few hours,’” Burke recalled Tuesday. “When it just went on for hours, I figured she was singing like a canary, and that’s good.”
When Crundwell was first charged, authorities said she had confessed to stealing money from city accounts for years and using the thefts to finance a championship horse-breeding operation.
The scheme was only uncovered when another city employee was struggling to reconcile city accounts while filling in for Crundwell, who had taken a weeks-long leave of absence to attend horse shows.
Then in September, five months after the federal charges were filed, Lee County State’s Attorney Henry Dixon brought additional charges against Crundwell — 60 counts of theft in connection with the same alleged misconduct.
It was unclear how Crundwell’s guilty plea to the one federal fraud count might affect the Lee County charges. Henry Dixon lost his bid for re-election last week and was not available for comment Tuesday, his office said. The Chicago Tribune was unable to reach State’s Attorney-elect Anna Sacco-Miller.
Local officials wanted “insurance that Rita wouldn’t just get a slap on the wrist with the one (federal) count,” said Burke, who still hopes the local charges move forward.
In addition to her admissions to the FBI, Crundwell has put up little fight in court to date.
She did not contest moves by federal authorities to sell off assets she allegedly bought with the stolen money. As part of those efforts, more than $7 million has been raised by auctioning off about 400 quarter horses and the luxury motor home she used to travel to horse shows.
Much of that money will go back to Dixon to make up for the sizable losses incurred by Crundwell’s alleged thefts over nearly 22 years. And the auctions haven’t been finished yet. Her ranches in Dixon and Beloit, Wis., jewelry and other assets are still to be sold .
Burke said the investigation and audits conducted since Crundwell’s arrest have not linked anyone else to the thefts and that Crundwell did not appear to have any vices like drug abuse or gambling that drove her to steal.
In Dixon, Crundwell did not flaunt her wealth. And when she arrived at horse shows around the country with dozens of horses, her peers assumed she had a massive income that came from outside her horse business.
She seems, Burke said, to have wanted to live a lavish lifestyle and to raise champion horses.
“Our police chief said it best,” Burke said. “All this was about horses and trophies.”
(Tribune reporter Melissa Jenco contributed.)