Former La Jolla music company chief financial officer sentenced for embezzling $650,000

SAN DIEGO (CNS) — The former chief financial officer of the La Jolla Music Society was sentenced Thursday to 30 months in prison for embezzling more than $650,000 from the nonprofit during nearly a decade.

Chris Benavides, 52, pleaded guilty earlier this year to a federal count of wire fraud for nonprofit theft between October 2011 and February 2021.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Benavides used the stolen funds to pay his mortgage, credit cards, utility bills and other personal expenses.

Prosecutors say he wrote unauthorized checks to himself, then altered the company’s accounting records to make the payments appear to be legitimate business expenses.

Benavides was fired by the La Jolla Music Society last year and the company reported the embezzlement to the police. The organization has since filed a lawsuit against him alleging fraud and other causes of action.

Several members of the La Jolla Music Society attended Benavides’ sentencing hearing, including its president and CEO, Todd Schultz, who said the defendant ‘systematically’ robbed the organization over the decade and had sometimes refused raises to staff because he claimed the funds were not available.

Schultz said the organization believes the theft began before 2010, but the nonprofit’s records don’t go back far enough to prove it.

He also noted that Benavides earned a six-figure salary and that his theft was not committed out of desperation or because of a difficult financial situation.

“He didn’t have to fly. He wanted to fly,” Schultz said.

Steve Baum, chairman of the nonprofit’s board of directors, said the organization was “relatively small” and operated “like a family”. Due to the tight-knit nature of the nonprofit, “people were really heartbroken” when the theft was discovered, Baum said.

Benavides told U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo, “I’m ashamed of what I did” and that he has since lost the trust of many friends “all because of my bad decisions.”

The judge, who imposed a higher sentence than the 24 months required by the prosecution, lambasted Benavides, saying this type of embezzlement is “much more egregious when a nonprofit is involved.”

In addition to custody, the judge issued a preliminary order to pay $650,000 in restitution to the nonprofit.