A gay man who embezzled $650,000 from the La Jolla Music Society when he worked as their finance director will surrender Sept. 19 to start his 2 1/2-year federal prison term.
Christopher Michael Benavides, 52, of Mission Valley, was sentenced Aug. 4, but was allowed to remain free on $20,000 bond by U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Bencivengo.
Bencivengo exceeded the recommended 2-year term recommended by the prosecutor, saying this embezzlement is “way more egregious when a non-profit (organization) is involved.” She imposed 30 months.
Benavides was earning $120,000 annually in salary when he was embezzling from the organization, according to a 4-page letter submitted by Todd Schultz, the president and CEO of the La Jolla Music Society.
Bencivengo ordered Benavides to pay restitution of $650,000 to the music society. Assistant U.S. Attorney W. Mark Conover said he doubted Benavides was remorseful because he has not paid anything towards restitution.
The CEO’s letter stated that Benavides oversaw the budgeting process and “he regularly claimed that many staff salary increases were not possible due to budgetary constraints.” He added, “During this same time period, Benavides was stealing for himself an average of about $65,000 per year.”
Schultz’ letter said they discovered Benavides paid his personal mortgage payments using the music society funds, and Benavides initially said it was done by accident. But they later learned it was a massive theft in which funds were used to pay for his credit cards and other personal expenses.
They fired him in March 2021 after 15 years as their finance director. Executives said they suspect the theft may be larger, but their records don’t go back past 2011.
Also speaking in court was Board Chairman Steve Baum, who also investigated the thefts. In the report, Baum asked Benavides if there was a reason for the thefts, such as a health crisis or gambling problem. “I had no reason to do this,” Benavides replied, according to the report.
In court, Benavides told Bencivengo he regretted his actions and lost the trust of friends. He said he was sorry for the harm he caused.
“Mr. Benavides exploited his position of trust with the La Jolla Music Society by stealing month after month for over a decade,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman.
“His greed and deception have had a lasting impact on this non-profit,” added Grossman.
“La Jolla Music Society trusted their director of finance to safeguard the non-profit’s funds, but Benavides had a different plan,” said Stacey Moy, special agent in charge of the FBI’s field office.
“Instead, the defendant strategically calculated year over year to systematically steal from his employer, selfishly lining his own pockets,” said Moy.
The La Jolla Music Society provides arts and education programming for thousands of San Diegans each year including a year-round music-training program in Barrio Logan for middle and high school students.
They provide learning opportunities for young musicians, seminars, lectures, and student performances. It relies heavily on donors, foundations and government funding to cover its expenses.