By Melissa Jenco
5:40 PM EST, February 14, 2013
Disgraced former Dixon comptroller Rita Crundwell was sentenced today to about 19 1/2 years in prison for what authorities have called the largest municipal fraud in the country’s history.
U.S. District Judge Philip Reinhard ordered Crundwell taken into custody immediately to begin serving the sentence of 19 years and 7 months.
"I'm truly sorry to the city of Dixon and my family and my friends," Crundwell said as she choked up before the sentencing, her first show of emotion since she was charged last April.
The judge spoke of the "sheer magnitude" of Crundwell’s fraud and her callousness in carrying it out over more than two decades.
"You showed much greater passion for the welfare of your horses than the people of Dixon you represented," Reinhard told Crundwell. "You lived the lifestyle befitting a wealthy person, and you did this on monies that weren’t yours."
Crundwell pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $54 million from the small northwest town over more than two decades to fund a lavish lifestyle while the town's budget was awash in red ink.
Prosecutors asked that Crundwell, 60, be sentenced to as much as 20 years in prison, citing the staggering losses the city sustained.
Crundwell’s attorney, Paul Gaziano, asked the court to consider a lighter sentence. recognizing Crundwell’s cooperation with authorities after her arrest last April.
Several Dixon city officials – including the police chief and a city commissioner – were called to the witness stand to detail how Crundwell’s massive thefts crippled the city budget – though Crundwell led employees to think the economy and late state payments were to blame for the cash crunch.
And Mayor James Burke read from a victim-impact statement, declaring that there was not a culture of corruption at the City Hall.
Looking directly at Crundwell, the mayor said, “I hope you find purpose and meaning in your life.”
For the first time, authorities hinted that Crundwell’s thefts may have started even earlier than first thought, as far back as 1988. Previously, prosecutors said the thefts began in December 1990.
U.S. marshals have been working to recoup some of the losses to repay the town, best known as the boyhood home of President Ronald Reagan. So far, they have collected about $11 million from the sale of Crundwell's 400 horses, ranch, personal property, a luxury motor home and other vehicles, and expect about $10 million to ultimately be returned to Dixon coffers.
“There was trust that the city of Dixon placed in Rita Crundwell. … You can trust but you have to verify, and I think that’s the lesson for other municipalities, governments,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph Pedersen told reporters at the Rockford courthouse after the sentencing.
Burke said he was pleased to see Crundwell immediately taken into custody but said the sentencing was also emotional, “knowing her all these years and (to) think what a tragedy this whole thing is not only for the city but for her also.”
The mayor also questioned the sincerity of Crundwell’s apology, saying, “I think her conscience didn’t bother her at all.”
Crundwell still faces 60 state charges of felony theft, each of which carries a potential sentence of up to 30 years in prison on conviction. That case is due back in court in Lee County on March 4.
The Lee County state’s attorney said she would meet with town officials to decide whether to continue to pursue the pending state charges.
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