Eric Levine of Bethesda was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for mail fraud stemming from his embezzlement of at least $400,000 from a California synagogue when he was its executive director.
Levine, who had been executive director of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., but is not believed to have stolen any money there, apologized in court Sept. 19 for developing an obsession with wealth.
“ ‘I’m sorry’ is never going to be enough,” Levine said at the sentencing hearing, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. “What I’ve done to the community I love and care about won’t be fixed in a long time.”
As executive director of Congregation Beth El from July 2007 until December 2013, Levine oversaw the budget of the La Jolla synagogue and had access to its credit cards, bank accounts and financial records. He took money from the synagogue’s accounts to pay for vacations to Mexico, Hawaii, Las Vegas and Canada, pay for a personal trainer, car tires, fancy jewelry and private school tuition for his two daughters, covering his tracks by forging financial records, which were only discovered after he had resigned his position and begun work at Adas Israel.
As part of his guilty plea, Levine, 37, admitted to taking $395,000 but synagogue officials estimated the losses at $540,000, according to the Office of the United States Attorney Southern District of California.
“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,” said U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy.
Several synagogue officials testified that due to Levine’s thefts, synagogue staff was laid off, heat was not installed in classrooms and contributions to the staff’s annual retirement fund were not always made.
In a letter to the court, Rabbi Philip Graubart wrote of the pain of working with a man he had trusted. “Most of our interactions involved the synagogue’s finances, which means he lied to me every day, every time our paths crossed,” Graubart 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,” he said. “It’s hard to know if we’ll ever be the same.”
Levine was ordered to pay $543,000 in restitution. He also was sentenced to three years of supervised release once he is finished serving his jail time for mail fraud. He could have received a maximum penalty of 20 years in custody.
When announcing Levine’s punishment, Judge Dana Sabraw said, “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.”
Robert Howe, Federal Bureau of Investigation’s acting special agent in charge, said, “Mr. Levine hid behind a façade 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.”
About 45 days after Levine had stopped working at Beth El, officials there discovered that the money was missing.
In a telephone call with officials from Beth El and Adas Israel on Feb. 9, Levine “apologized and did not deny any of the accusations,” former synagogue President Sonia Israel said.
To avoid this ever happening again, Congregation Beth El has set up an independent task force.