It’s not too often that us auditor/fraud investigator/forensic accountant-types find ourselves in the bright light of mainstream celebrity. In a way, our entire collective professional identity is primarily as anonymous bean-counting corporate drones. We even revel in it, and use it to our advantage when trying keep an ultra-low profile during an investigation.
Really, accountants and auditors tend to only make the news when it’s BAD (here’s looking at you, Arthur Anderson). To be fair, the ACFE and their wonderfully named trade magazine, FRAUD, is full of stories of intrepid, tenacious defenders of truth, justice, and the American Way, but let’s face it: Nobody but us reads those stories.
The closest I’ve seen any frauditor-types come to mainstream celebrity is Harry Markopolous, the kick-ass CFE who unearthed the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, which remains the largest confirmed Ponzi/Pyramid-type fraud scheme in world history, with estimates of up to $100-billion dollars stolen (although Mr. Markopolous insists that at least $35 billion of that figure consists of fictional profits that Madoff reported, but that never really existed). Regardless, I highly recommend Mr. Markopolous’ fantastic book about the Madoff scandal, No One Would Listen.
But now we’ve got a new contender for fraud-world celebrity, such as it is: Kelly Richmond Pope, PhD., CPA:
Dr. Pope, in addition to being a professor of forensic accounting, ethics and leadership, and managerial accounting at DePaul University, is a self-described “Left-handed CPA who uses filmmaking to teach people about decision-making.” I recently had a chance to attend a private showing, of her latest documentary film, All The Queen’s Horses, and it is remarkable. It may be the single best documentation of the complex psycho-social web that surrounds every fraud scheme.
You may remember the surreal headlines coming out of the sleepy small-town of Dixon, Illinois in 2012:
Source: FBI press release, 5/1/12
“Financial controls in Dixon were the ‘perfect storm of embezzlement,’ an expert says”
– Chicago Tribune
“Woman accused of bilking $53 million from Reagan’s boyhood hometown”
The story seems utterly banal: Small-town has poor-to-non-existent internal controls in its municipal government operations, and a long-time employee sees an opportunity for malfeasance and takes it. But this case is really something else – Rita A. Crundwell, the long-time town controller, stole AT LEAST $53 million over a period of twenty years. This from a small farming community of less than 16,000 people.
Dr. Pope began working on the film shortly after Ms. Crundwell’s arrest in 2012. Recognizing that there was a compelling story beyond just the dollar amount in this case, Pope and her production team took six years to ensure that the entire tale was told – from Rita Crundwell’s humble and quasi-idyllic childhood, all the way through arrest, indictment, and sentencing and the subsequent human, political, and economic aftermath.
I think what I found so compelling about All The Queen’s Horses was how well the film captures the emotional roller-coaster that whistleblowers find themselves on, and the ripples of fallout that affect people far beyond the primary participants in the saga.
Narrated by Dr. Pope in a crisp, entertaining style, the film intersperses dozens of interviews with experts and laypeople, politicians and taxpayers, academics and activists, while also taking an educational approach, with numerous animated info-graphics and concurrent storylines.
A key theme that emerges is that Rita Crundwell could never have pulled off the largest municipal fraud in U.S history without a number of unwitting assistants. It’s a textbook case of failure of multiple lines of defense against fraud: A bank that fails to adhere to anti-money-laundering procedures. A good-ol-boy city council that was asleep at the wheel. Dozens of colleagues, friends, and family members that never seriously questioned Rita’s expertly delivered but suspicious cover stories. And a global audit firm that failed their fiduciary duty to their client (the City of Dixon), that their shame (and liability) should be infinite. It’s all quite a tale, told in a fast-moving and entertaining 1 hour, 10-minute film that is very well-produced.
Most of all, All The Queen’s Horses serves as a vivid reminder that every entity involving humans is susceptible to fraud in all its forms. The thing I keep going back to when thinking about the film is the fundamental decency of virtually everyone in Dixon. Hard-working, honest, charitable, polite folks. The proverbial salt-of-the-earth-midwesterners that I’ve come to know and love after living in Kansas for nearly a decade. These folks trusted Rita Crundwell with their tax dollars. She stole nearly all of it, and roads, sidewalks, buildings, and other public infrastructure in Dixon steadily decayed. Kelly Richmond Pope captures the pain and betrayal that these folks feel, and their confusion and angst at realizing that it was “one of their own” that did it.
All The Queen’s Horses is available on all major streaming platforms, and has been one of the most-watched documentary films of the past two years on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, and Google Play. I highly recommend taking the time to watch it and research the story and the film!
Music Recommendation: Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Live at Red Rocks A tasty stew of blue-eyed soul, greasy garage-band rock-n-roll, and classic R&B, along with an assist from the amazing Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans. A new favorite – highly recommended!
Food Recommendation: The short-rib griller sandwich at Q39, Kansas City Pitmaster Rob Magee’s incredible restaurants in Kansas City and Overland Park, Kansas. This thing is worth getting on an airplane for – trust me. Truly sublime. Magee’s Q39 has rapidly ascended the ultra-competitive KC BBQ ladder.