WJBC Voices: Asking questions of government

By Sally K. Pyne

One of the motivations to serve in public office for me is a “watchdog” curiosity. I want to be sure the folks that are handling our municipal funds are not only managing them with our interests in mind, but not stealing from us. I had the opportunity to see “All the Queen’s Horses” at the Normal Theatre recently. Maybe you remember the story of Rita Crundwell, Dixon Illinois City Comptroller who managed to embezzle the largest amount of municipal monies in U.S. history. She siphoned $54 million dollars from the city of Dixon—Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home. Hers was actually a very simple process. She was able to do this for 22 years! How on earth did she get away with it? How did no one catch her?

While there were many factors that contributed to her ability to steal from her neighbors and friends, it was the relationships she’d fostered all her life that shielded her from others even considering that she was taking money. They all trusted her. She knew more about the budgets than anyone else and could “explain-away” deteriorating roads, broken police radios that couldn’t be replaced due to lack of funds, and anything else that someone inquired about. She was one of those people that others were embarrassed to even question. I am sure you have seen this. “It’s always been done that way.” “He’s been in that position forever.” “No one knows more about that stuff then her.” One person remarked that Rita Crundwell “watched every penny as if it were her own”—if they only knew—funny in retrospect I guess, but sad that she could take advantage of their trust. A similar neighboring town once pointed out to those in Dixon that while they had a like population and almost duplicate expenses they enjoyed an $8 million-dollar surplus, while Dixon had an $8 million-dollar deficit. I would have liked to hear her explanation of that one…it must have been a “dousy” because they bought it.

There was an unusual situation regarding how the city audit was done. The same firm that did the public audit also handled Rita Crundwell’s personal accounts. There were expenses in her finances that could not be justified by her $83,000 salary. Some guessed she’d made out pretty well in her divorce, or her horse farm was very lucrative. She managed a breeding herd of over 400 horses after all. She dated one of the partners in the accounting firm and he was a frequent guest in her extravagant home. No one else was indicted for the fraud, however, eventually the accounting firm and the bank paid settlements to the city.

Accounting classes talk about “professional skepticism” which is an attitude that includes a questioning mind, being alert to conditions which may indicate possible misstatements due to error or fraud, and a critical assessment of audit evidence. It is only through this trait that we protect ourselves from unsavory public figures. A skeptic isn’t a cynic. A cynic is someone who believes the worst of something or someone despite the lack of evidence. A skeptic doesn’t believe anything without strong evidence.

When I served on the County Board I witnessed on several occasions board members that would open their packets as they sat down to the table for the monthly full board meeting. This was prior to our ability to get all the materials electronically. I was shocked! How could they truly say they were serving the public if they hadn’t read the information and analyzed with professional skepticism the information prior to arriving for the meeting? I was encouraged to call ahead of the meeting to get the answers I needed to some questions I had in my preparation. “No thank you,” I preferred to have my inquires be part of public record.

So, in the meantime I’ll be asking questions and re-electing my representatives that do so. Please be brave enough to do the same. It can be embarrassing to admit you don’t know how something works, or what an expense is within a public invoice, but it is our line of defense against those who might prey on our trust and insecurity as we navigate public service. We are counting on each other.

For more information:

2015 Apostolou, Barbara, Nicholas G. Apostolou & Greg Thibadoux. “Horseplay in Dixon: Lessons Learned from the Rita Crundwell Fraud.”  Journal of Forensic & Investigative Accounting, Vol. 7, Issue 1, January-June.

Dr. Sally Pyne is a lifelong resident of Normal. She is a retired educator and served both Illinois State University and Lincoln College Normal. Her husband Ed owns the Normalite newspaper as well as seven other weeklies in McLean County.

The opinions expressed within WJBC’s Voices are solely those of the Voices’ author, and are not necessarily those of WJBC or Cumulus Media, Inc.

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