Ex-La Jolla Music Society finance director sentenced to 30 months in prison for embezzling $650,000

The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center is the home of the La Jolla Music Society.
(Darren Bradley)

The former director of finance for the La Jolla Music Society was sentenced Aug. 4 to 30 months in prison for embezzling more than $650,000 from the nonprofit over nearly a decade.

Chris Benavides, 52, pleaded guilty earlier this year to a count of federal wire fraud.

U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo also issued a preliminary order for Benavides to pay $650,000 in restitution to the Music Society.

Benavides used the funds, stolen between October 2011 and February 2021, to pay his mortgage, credit card and utility bills and other personal expenses, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

Prosecutors said he issued unauthorized checks to himself, then altered the Music Society’s accounting records to make the payments appear to be for legitimate business expenses.

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

Several LJMS members attended Benavides’ sentencing hearing, including its president and chief executive, Todd Schultz, who said the defendant “systematically” stole from the organization and at times denied raises to staff because he claimed funds were not available.

Schultz said the organization believes the theft started earlier than 2011 but the nonprofit’s records don’t go back far enough to prove it.

He also noted that Benavides was making a six-figure salary and said his theft was not committed out of desperation or dire financial straits.

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

Steve Baum, chairman of the LJMS board of directors, said the organization is “relatively small” and operates “like a family.” Given the tight-knit nature of the nonprofit, “people were really heartbroken” when the theft came to light, Baum said.

Benavides told Bencivengo that “I’m ashamed of what I’ve done” and said he has lost the trust of many friends, “all because of my poor decisions.”

The judge, who imposed a longer sentence than the 24 months requested by the prosecution, excoriated Benavides, saying this type of embezzlement is “way more egregious when a nonprofit is involved.” ◆