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Recovery incomplete, two years afterward

The city of Dixon has done a number of things right to correct a system that allowed nearly $54 million to be stolen. However, 2 years after Rita Crundwell’s arrest, reform efforts are still incomplete.

Published: Thursday, April 17, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

Watershed events, sometimes tragic, sometimes joyous, mark all of our lives. They mark the life of a city, too.

April 17, 2012, is a date that represents one of those major divisions of time for the city of Dixon.

It was on that date, 2 years ago today, that then-Comptroller Rita Crundwell was arrested by the FBI on a charge of fraud that eventually expanded to encompass her theft of nearly $54 million from city coffers over more than 2 decades.

Before April 17, 2012, Crundwell was considered an efficient public servant who operated a successful quarter horse breeding ranch on the side and exhibited champion horses at major shows.

After April 17, 2012, Crundwell came to be considered a brazen, heartless thief who lived a lavish lifestyle by secretly defrauding the citizens of Dixon of a breathtaking amount of money.

Her eventual guilty plea in federal court led to a federal prison sentence of nearly 20 years.

Her ill-gotten gains have been mostly liquidated, and a lawsuit settlement in Dixon’s favor led to the city recouping a total of nearly $40 million.

What about the city of Dixon?

How has it responded to the huge fraud perpetrated against it?

Mayor Jim Burke, who consented to an interview last week with the Sauk Valley Media Editorial Board, brought two living examples of the city’s positive response with him.

One was Paula Meyer, whom the city hired in 2012 after the Crundwell arrest to be Dixon’s new finance director.

She detailed her extensive efforts to reform city financial systems to prevent future employee thefts of taxpayer dollars.

The other was David Nord, whom the city hired last year as its first administrator.

He detailed his work to further professionalize the rules by which employees operate city government.

Corrections to a system that allowed such a massive theft are ongoing. A Naperville-based accounting firm will evaluate the city’s separation of duties in the finance department to see whether further improvements can be made.

For his part, Burke responded to all questions put to him about the scandal, although in the case of the city council’s refusal to release closed-session minutes from the day of Crundwell’s arrest, Burke said the council was following a lawyer’s advice.

Regarding the large private loans from Crundwell to two fellow city employees, which were revealed after Crundwell’s arrest, Burke said he ordered a stop to such future loans. But details about the previous loans have yet to be released by the FBI.

The city was also correct to study its commission form of government compared to other forms, and then place the administrator/manager question on an upcoming ballot.

The openness of some city officials, especially Burke, in discussing the matter should be appreciated by all. Omitted from our praise is Commissioner David Blackburn, who oversees the city’s Accounts and Finances department, and who refuses to answer reporters’ questions.

Broadsided by a scandal of astonishing proportions, city officials have done a number of things right.

But until the lingering mysteries – the executive session minutes, the loans, and Blackburn’s troubling reticence – are settled, the job of bouncing back from that watershed event is not yet finished.

Asked to give the city a grade on its response (and we were, by Mayor Burke), we’ll have to give the overall effort an incomplete thus far.

A year from now might well be a different story. We can only hope.

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