Sentencing for the former finance director for the La Jolla Music Society is set for May 5 after he pleaded guilty to wire fraud in an embezzlement that totaled $650,000 over 10 years.
Christopher Michael Benavides, 52, of San Diego, remains free on $20,000 bond following his guilty plea before U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Barbara Major.
Court records say he misappropriated $650,000 between Oct., 2011 and Feb., 2021 from the non-profit organization where he began working in 2006.
His plea agreement says he devised a scheme to cause checks to be issued to himself and then deposited them to his own bank account.
There is a curious paragraph in his plea agreement that suggests that Benavides has already repaid much of the funds back to the La Jolla Music Society. Attorneys could not be reached for comment about it, but the U.S. Attorney’s office has agreed to a three-level sentencing departure based on “return of funds” and also his “expeditious resolution” with his guilty plea.
While the maximum sentence is 20 years in federal prison, Benavides is likely to receive much less time. It is possible for him to receive probation or be subject to house arrest if all of the money is paid back.
The La Jolla Music Society discovered the fraud on Feb. 22, 2021 and fired Benavides in March, 2021. They reported the embezzlement to law enforcement.
“Fraud perpetrated against non-profit organizations is particularly troubling,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman in a statement.
“This defendant abused his position of trust to enrich himself and will be held accountable for his crime,” added Grossman.
The U.S. Attorney said Benavides used the stolen funds to pay his mortgage, credit cards, and other personal expenses. He will be ordered to pay the organization back, if he has not already done so.
“Crimes such as this can have a devastating impact on both the employer and the local community, and further shake the confidence of the donors whose charitable contributions provide critical support for non-profit organizations,” said FBI Special Agent in charge Suzanne Turner in a statement.
“I hope this guilty plea provides a sense of closure and justice for the victims,” said Turner.
Court records say Benavides has been ordered to notify the U.S. Attorney’s office if he purchases any property worth more than $1,000. He also could be fined a maximum of $250,000.