Executive Director of La Jolla Synagogue Held to Account for Betrayal
United States District Judge Dana M. Sabraw today sentenced Eric S. Levine to 18 months in prison for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from La Jolla’s Congregation Beth El synagogue.
Levine served as Beth El’s Executive Director from July 2007 to December 2013, overseeing the synagogue’s annual budget. Importantly, he also had access to, and control over, Beth El’s bank accounts, credit card accounts, and bookkeeping records. Starting in at least February 2008, he began embezzling money from the synagogue for his own use. He continued his thefts until he left the position in December 2013. As part of his guilty plea, Levine admitted misappropriating $394,872.99 from the synagogue over those five years. Based on additional accounting analysis and review of financial records, the congregation identified its ultimate losses from Levine’s conduct as over $540,000.
Levine was able to carry out his embezzlement by virtue of his control over Beth El’s bank account and credit card. On most occasions, he simply used money located in the congregation’s bank account to pay his own bills directly. On other occasions, he transferred balances from his personal credit card to the congregation’s credit card account, and then paid his balances with the congregation’s funds.
In order to fool the congregation, its bookkeepers, and its executive staff, Levine falsified Beth El’s books and records to cover up his ongoing theft. He hid thousands of dollars in payments to himself by creating entries for legitimate expenses of the synagogue, in categories such as “Ritual Fund,” “Rabbi Emeritus,” “High Holidays,” “Purim Baskets,” “janitorial expense,” “utilities,” “landscaping expense,” and “repair / replace reserve fund.” His mischaracterization of payments made it appear that more of Beth El’s funds were spent on legitimate synagogue expenses than was actually spent. Levine also prepared false financial reports and annual budget proposals based on these inflated figures.
Instead of these legitimate expenses, the funds were used to pay a variety of Levine’s credit card charges, including trips to Mexico, Hawaii, Las Vegas, and Canada; charges at La Costa Resort Spa; monthly membership and regular $1,400 charges for a personal trainer at 24 Hour Fitness; and expenditures at StubHub, Sleep Train, Discount Tire. Having his hand in Beth El’s till also allowed Levine to outfit his home with expensive leather furniture and BBQ equipment, buy fancy jewelry, send his children to private school, and purchase exclusive Disney vacations. After having pored over the congregation’s records from the time of Levine’s tenure, Beth El’s new Executive Director remarked in her letter to the Court: “From Eric’s first months at Beth El in 2007 until the day he left, every Beth El credit card statement is riddled with his personal expenses: restaurants, gas, iTunes, men’s clothing, travel for his family, home décor. Even after he gave notice of his departure to the Beth El board, Eric purchased expensive new smartphones for himself and his wife on Beth El’s Sprint account.”
The President of the synagogue described the impact of Levine’s thefts on the congregation:
“Because of his crime, people lost their jobs, their livelihoods, and their lives were changed forever. “No money in the budget,” he said, while taking our money to line his pockets.
Because of his crime, we could not install heat in the classrooms for our children. “No money in the budget,” he said, while paying off his own credit cards.
Because of him, we could not give complementary meals to families. “No money in the budget,” he said, while shopping for his own family, and himself.
Our staff gets annual retirement employee contributions of about 2%. In 2009 he told the staff that due to the downturn in the economy, no contributions would be made that year…But there would have been sufficient funds if he had not been stealing…from his own employees, people who have dedicated their lives and souls to Beth El.
He took our money, money we raised from our generous congregants, money to be used for the good of our community. He took it.”
Beth El’s rabbi explained the personal impact of Levine’s breach of trust in a letter to the Court. “Eric and I worked closely together. Most of our interactions involved the synagogue’s finances, which means he lied to me every day, every time our paths crossed,” he wrote. “Almost the entirety of our operating budget comes from voluntary dues and contributions. Simply put, people will not trust [Beth El] as much, if at all. . . . [Now], our diminished staff spends much more time on accounting than on our mission of creating a lively Jewish community in San Diego. It’s hard to know if we’ll ever be the same.” He also described employees who were laid off by Levine due to claimed budget constraints, including a single mother of two who has yet to find a new job.
One member of the congregation summed up the impact of Levine’s crime on this community:
Even more important [than the theft of funds] is the breach of trust and loss of a sense of reliance on one previously so highly ‘esteemed’ by so many of our Beth El community. Mr. Levine touched the lives of hundreds in our synagogue. We will certainly recover from the loss of funds. What he has done in terms of disappointment as a human being will affect our members and their ability to feel a sense of trust for years to come.
In imposing sentence, Judge Sabraw said the case involved “deeply troubling circumstances” because Levine’s scheme victimized both his employer and congregants who shared his life and faith.
“It’s a deception not only of the synagogue, but everyone who makes up the synagogue, so there are hundreds of victims…The sense of betrayal cannot be overstated.”
The Court ordered that Levine pay $543,000 in restitution for the monies he stole from Congregation Beth El. He was also sentenced to three years of supervised release upon completion of his prison term.
U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said, “Mr. Levine embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance a life of luxury for himself while betraying the people who believed in him. This defendant was a one-man wrecking ball to this congregation, both financially and emotionally, and today the court imposed a fitting sentence for such abhorrent conduct.”
FBI Acting Special Agent in Charge Robert Howe commented, “Mr. Levine hid behind a facade of honesty and integrity while stealing money from his congregation to support his lavish lifestyle. In doing so, Mr. Levine betrayed the people who trusted him the most and today’s sentencing sends a clear message that those who engage in similar criminal conduct will be held accountable for their actions.”
Eric S. Levine
- Mail fraud, Title 18, United States Code, Section 1341
- Maximum penalties: 20 years in custody; $250,000 fine; three years of supervised release; mandatory order of restitution to victims
Federal Bureau of Investigation