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.
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.