Robert Ray / AP file
In this file photo from May 7, former comptroller for Dixon, Ill., Rita Crundwell leaves federal court in Rockford, Ill.
A former longtime comptroller for Dixon, Ill., pleaded guilty Wednesday morning to a federal fraud charge that claimed she stole more than $53 million from the city's accounts and used it to fund her horse-breeding business and lavish lifestyle.
Rita Crundwell, 59, faces up to 20 years in prison, the Justice Department said in a news release. As part of her plea agreement with the government, Crundwell admitted to one count of wire fraud and engagement in illegal money laundering.
Since 1990, Crundwell allegedly stole more than $53 million from Dixon, where she oversaw public finances as the city comptroller, by diverting it to an account she had set up for personal use, then misleading city officials. She handled all the city's finances from 1983 until her arrest back in April.
Authorities say Crundwell used the money to buy luxury homes and vehicles and spent millions on her horse-breeding operation, RC Quarter Horses LLC, which produced 52 world champions in exhibitions run by the American Quarter Horse Association.
The Justice Department said she will owe restitution to the city of Dixon totaling more than $53.7 million, "minus any credit for funds repaid prior to sentencing."
"Since the outset of this case, we have used every available means, including both criminal and civil forfeiture proceedings, to ensure the recovery of as much money as possible for the City of Dixon, its residents and taxpayers," said Gary S. Shapiro, Acting United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.
Crundwell's attorney Paul Gazianno said his client's guilty plea saved the government a costly and lengthy trial, The Associated Press reported.
"Rita, since the day of her arrest, has worked with the government to accomplish the sale of her assets, including her beloved horses, all with the goal of hoping to recoup the losses for the city of Dixon," Gazianno said, according to the AP.
So far, approximately $7.4 million of Crundwell's assets have been liquidated, including 400 quarter horses, vehicles, trailers, tack and a luxury motor home.
Crundwell's sentencing is set for Feb. 14. She is allowed to remain free until then, the AP reported.
Dixon, with a population of approximately 15,733, is about 100 miles southwest of Chicago. The town's mayor, James Burke, said Crundwell deserves a long prison sentence, the AP reported.
"We're very happy that she pleaded guilty," Burke said, according to the AP. "There's no feeling sorry for her at all."
Crundwell has pleaded not guilty to 60 separate but related felony theft counts in Lee County, Ill., the AP reported.
More content from NBCNews.com:
- In 911 calls, Kelley tries to invoke diplomatic immunity
- Storm system could snarl East Coast holiday travel
- Displaced by Sandy, elderly sisters find time to laugh
- Video: Thousands sign petition for Texas to secede
- Plane crashes on way to air safety conference