Embezzler pleads guilty in California

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A Bethesda man has pleaded guilty to stealing almost $400,000 from a California synagogue and using the money to pay for vacations, a personal trainer, jewelry and private school for his two children.

Eric Levine, who most recently worked for Adas Israel Congregation in the District, stole the money between February 2008 and December 2013 while he was executive director of Congregation Beth El in the San Diego suburb of La Jolla.


Levine officially was charged with interstate wire fraud. He will be sentenced June 27.

He admitted to falsifying Beth El’s books and records to cover up his theft, hiding “thousands of dollars in payments to himself by creating entries for legitimate expenses of the synagogue,” according to a news release from the office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of California. By mischaracterizing payments, it appeared that more of the synagogue’s funds were spent on legitimate expenses than actually was.

https://www.washingtonjewishweek.com/enewsletter/

Levine, 36, created false financial reports and annual budget proposals based on those inflated figures.

Instead of using the money for actual Beth El expenses, Levine paid his own credit card charges, including for trips to Mexico, Las Vegas and Canada; stays at the Mandalay Bay and Bally’s in Las Vegas and the Hilton Waikiki, the Grand Mayan Los Cabos and La Costa Resort & Spa; monthly gym membership and regular $1,400 charges for a personal trainer; and tickets from StubHub, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.


He also purchased expensive leather furniture, barbecue equipment, fancy jewelry, private school tuition and Disney vacations, according to the release, and used the funds for partial payment of an automobile and tires.

Levine hid the money in synagogue budget categories, including ritual fund, rabbi emeritus, High Holidays, Purim baskets, janitorial expense, utilities, landscaping expense and repair/replace reserve fund, according to the release.

The California synagogue only realized Levine’s criminal activities after he left its employment to come to Washington. Once synagogue leaders realized it, in February of this year, they confronted Levine, who admitted his guilt during a phone call.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Halpern said the fact that Levine pleaded guilty right away “indicated his remorse” and desire to get the matter behind him. While Levine faces a maximum of 20 years in custody, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release, Halpern predicted Levine will be sentenced to anywhere from “straight probation to three or four years in jail.”

Levine, who didn’t say anything during his April 8 arraignment, must pay restitution of at least $394,872.99, the amount that the synagogue has so far been able to document. That amount could increase if it turns out he took even more, said Halpern.

“Levine was able to carry out his embezzlement by virtue of his control over Beth El’s bank account and credit card,” stated the release.

“On most occasions, he simply used money located in the congregation’s bank account to pay his 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.”

Sonia Israel, Beth El’s president, Judy Persky, its executive director, and some board members were in court when Levine admitted to the felony charge of defrauding their synagogue. Israel labeled the details of Levine’s scheme “ugly.”

During the short hearing, “we did not talk to him,” said Israel. “We actually had no eye contact with him whatsoever.”

In a letter to the congregation, Israel said that while Levine could receive 20 years in jail, “our understanding is that any penalty he receives following his plea agreement will be significantly less than that.”

Israel said she expected the sentence to be around 18 to 20 months in jail, which she said she would be satisfied with as long as Levine pays the synagogue back and is incarcerated for at least some time.

Levine only worked for Adas Israel for about a month, and synagogue officials there are confident that he did not steal any money while there.

He worked at his California synagogue from July 2007 to December 2013, overseeing the synagogue’s annual budget of close to $2 million.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Suzanne – I would be interested in a followup article as to how synagogues prevent this kind of criminal behavior. How can congregants trust that their Executive Directors are not taking out monies from the synagogues’ bank accounts. Where was the system of preventative measures at that California shul? Was the only staff on the checking account?

    Janis Hochman
    [email protected]

  2. Janis – As a CPA, and as an Executive Director of a synagogue, I would not expect the synagogue – or any entity – to launch into an explanation of their internal controls for public consumption. Also – your comment assumes that it is all about staff dishonesty. In this case it was a staff person. But may I add – it should not be assumed that Executive Directors are the only ones who could be culpable at synagogues. There are documented cases where clergy or lay leaders gave in to temptation. And there are churches that have had this experience as well. It is painful to hear of them. Unfortunately, even with levels of oversight, these things happen. The difficulty is that houses of worship, synagogues as well as churches, are full of well meaning people who tend to be trusting people, and who can easily be taken advantage of if they are not careful. The other difficulty is the leadership model – small staff, making it difficult to segregate duties, turnover of volunteers who are exactly that – volunteers – with limited time, interest, and expertise. And sometimes – limited interest in the details. It is a tricky environment. There is no simple answer. You may ask what about if the President or the Treasurer sign the checks? I would counter – what if the President or the Treasurer have no idea what they are looking at? What if you have a Treasurer with access to the checkbook AND the bank statements? And the Treasurer has been treasurer for years because no one else wwants to do it? How about an annual audit? Very expensive, and no guarantees that it will uncover anything. Fortunately there are some easy controls that can significantly lower the risk. I have to say also – these fraudulent schemes tend to not be sophisticated, and usually can be easily detected, if the right controls and oversight exists. Look how easily this was uncovered by Beth El after Mr. Levine left. What we need are staff, clergy, and lay leaders all working together in our synagogues, in a spirit of cooperation, and value them, especially those who have a strong moral compass.

  3. Another comment:
    “Surely, if you do right, you will be lifted up. AND IF YOU DO NOT – SIN WAITS AT THE DOOR.” (Genesis 4:4). Temptation are present for all of us. We are all humans – we need to be master over our impulses

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