MARION — Women are not only as capable as men at running a government office, they are equally equipped to steal from it, too. And the notion that women may be the more trustworthy of the genders can lead to women gaining unchecked positions of power — and ultimately, crimes that rob taxpayers of millions.
The latest research paper published by the SIU Paul Simon Public Policy Institute rings that warning, calling attention to a little-told chapter in Illinois’s long book of political corruption: the "bad girls" of women in government.
“We definitely need to have outside auditing and government oversight, no matter who is playing the part in the system,” said Ryan Ceresola, a doctoral graduate student in the Department of Sociology, and author of the report. “We can always point to bad apples, but there’s still a bad barrel in government that allows for this to happen and it can sweep anybody up.”
While it may seem like an obvious statement — that all government leaders regardless of gender should be equally supervised and audited — Ceresola explores how gender perceptions can land women in roles demanding a high level of trust while watchdogs sleep nearby.
Crundwell stole millions
One of the most high-profile and striking cases he discusses is that of Rita Crundwell, the decades-long treasurer of Dixon, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to stealing nearly $54 million from the small city in northern Illinois to support her lavish lifestyle, including a championship horse-breeding operation.
The case is believed to represent the largest municipal embezzlement case in American history, but was born of a relatively simple scheme. It involved Crundwell creating an account called the Reserve Sewer Capital Development Account that appeared to be for the city but wasn’t.
She would then have funds deposited into a separate account after creating false invoices, and then deposit them into her personal “sewer” fund. For at least two decades, no one raised a stink even as the town’s budget ran red and municipal services were pinched.
Ceresola said he reviewed 29 cases from 1989 to 2014 of women in high-ranking government positions who were convicted of corruption as the basis for his The Simon Review paper titled, “Unsupervised, Ensnared, Relational and Private: A Typology of Illinois’s Corrupt Women.”
“A simple count of public officials convicted of corruption in Illinois shows that women do indeed perform corrupt acts, contrary to ideas that women are inherently incorruptible,” Ceresola writes.
Corrupt females tend to 'focus on the family'
In his 37-page paper, he constructs what he considers to be the archetype of a corrupt female government leader: “A woman who had unsupervised access to resources, who participated in a scandal that involved many people, including family members (most commonly including her husband), and who used the earnings from her corruption for personal, rather than political or career-motivated gain.”
Though Ceresola did not do a comparative study to corrupt men, he writes that some of the primary factors that motivate women to corruption can be different than those factors motivating men.
He writes that in one-third of the cases he studied, the women acted alongside, or with the support of, family members. This theory debunks the notion that women are less likely to steal from the public coffers because they are generally more "other-oriented" than they are driven by selfish motivations. Even if some women are socialized to be selfless, they may still engage in criminal acts to benefit a family member or boyfriend.
For example, in 2012, Sara Glashagel, a teacher in Antioch, was sentenced for using an administrative password to inflate grades for 64 students, 41 of them being football players. Her husband was the football coach. In 2002, Janet Thomas, a school board president in Harvey, was convicted of falsifying her income on a tax statement to assist her son in receiving a better financial aid package as he headed to college.
“This focus on the family reflects a type of corruption that is potentially novel to women as opposed to men,” he writes.
Corruption on equal footing
He said the only couple he found in the sample that seemed to approach corruption on equal footing for equal gain involved the Jacksons — Sandra Jackson, a former Chicago alderman, and her husband, former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. Both were convicted of illegally spending campaign donations on personal expenses.
The other possible gender difference Ceresola found is that the majority of women engaged in corruption for personal gain for themselves or others, rather to advance a political career, though he concedes that may change as more and more women enter higher-profile public offices.
Most of the cases he studied involved women employed at municipal or county offices, in addition to school districts, a housing authority and park district, among other positions largely outside the limelight.
Of the three women — out of 29 studied — who seemed to be motivated to corruption by career advancement, two were state representatives.
In 2013, Constance Howard, a Chicago Democrat, pleaded guilty to diverting about $28,000 from a scholarship fund she created for poor students and used it for both personal and political expenses instead. In 2005, Patricia Bailey, also a Chicago Democrat, was convicted of perjury and fraud for lying about living in the district she represented.
The final case he included in this category was then-Chicago Treasurer Miriam Santos, convicted of mail fraud and extortion, as she ran for attorney general, requiring firms doing business with the city to give large contributions to the Democratic Party or forfeit their contracts.
Myth in the making
Though far from a well-worn topic, the Simon institute isn’t the first to study or talk about the role of women in government as it relates to corruption. In 2007, Anne Marie Goetz authored a paper for an international social studies journal stating: “There is currently a myth in the making: that women are less corrupt than men.” She argued the usefulness of gendered analysis of corruption to identify gender-specific gaps in proposals to encourage good government.
Sheila Simon, of Carbondale, the former lieutenant governor, said she’s not sure if there’s a difference based on gender in terms of one’s likelihood to be corrupt, but believes government can be aided by the addition of women in leadership roles. “I’m not saying you want to elect all women and throw men out” she added, but noted that, for example, women can be more open communicators than men.
But too much trust afforded a woman can work against her, said Walter Pavlo, a contributor to Forbes.com who studies white-collar crimes. Pavlo said he's seen several cases nationally involving corrupt women in government where it appears they have been left unsupervised, likely because they were highly trusted by those who should be double-checking them.
“If anything, there’s probably a bias toward women to trust them the more,” he said. “It provides the ultimate cover. The 60-year-old woman who’s been there forever, one may certainly think that’s the most trusted person here.”
Williamson County women stole thousands
Ceresola’s paper didn’t examine the most recent case of government corruption in Southern Illinois, though he said the cases involving the three women who were able to collectively steal about $85,000 between 2009 and 2013 from the Williamson County Circuit Clerk’s Office, their long-time employer, also seem to fit the theme of his paper.
Former clerk supervisor Marsha Sue Davis-Dickinson and former deputy clerk Kelly Trammel each pleaded guilty in May to a Class 1 felony theft charge and a Class 3 felony official misconduct charge. A third employee, Cheryl Cundiff, pleaded guilty to the same charges in March. The Illinois Attorney General’s Office prosecuted the case.
The women conspired to steal from the tens of thousands of dollars in cash bond money that came into their office. Their boss, long-serving Circuit Clerk Stuart Hall, said he had no idea they were engaged in nefarious acts, and was personally hurt by the ordeal. He said he trusted the women completely, even considered them friends.
But as to whether their gender could have subconsciously led him to lend them more autonomy, Hall said he had no comment on that. “I think men are just as trustworthy as women,” he said. Though he said the decision is not related to this case, Hall said he’s considering retiring by summer’s end, stepping down more than a year early from his fourth elected term.
In the weeks since their conviction, many have criticized the plea deals the state offered the women — restitution and probation, but no prison time. Annie Thompson, spokeswoman for Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said several factors were included in the decision, including that none of the women had a prior felony history, and all agreed to repay the funds.
The women to date have returned $63,480 of the $85,000 they owe to the county, Thompson said. Both Dickinson and Trammel were ordered to each repay $30,000 (Dickinson has paid $16,740 to date, and Trammel has paid in full) and Cundiff $25,000 (she’s also paid $16,740). The county has since installed security cameras, implemented quarterly audits and updated the software used to track bond payments, and officials are currently seeking a return of state retirement contributions from the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund.
Commissioner Brent Gentry said he was shocked the sentences didn’t include time behind bars, but added that he is committed to making sure “they won’t go away with probation and get their retirement, too.”