The former executive director of the La Jolla synagogue Beth El will spend 18 months in prison for stealing more than $500,000 from his congregation, prosecutors say.
Eric S. Levine, 37, was sentenced for mail fraud Friday in federal court while dozens of his victims looked on.
Several Beth El congregants told U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw about the harm Levine had done to their congregation by embezzling that money.
Others expressed their anger and resentment towards Levine in letters they filed with the court.
“Eric and I worked closely together,” wrote the congregation’s rabbi. “Most of our interactions involved the synagogue’s finances, which means he lied to me every day, every time our paths crossed,” he wrote. “[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.”
Court records reveal Levine falsified the synagogue’s books and records to hide his continuing theft, which prosecutors say lasted five years.
In his guilty plea, Levine admitted to misappropriating $394,872.99, but the congregation says its ultimate losses were over $540,000.
According to prosecutors, Levine used his control over the synagogue’s bank account to pay his own bills directly or transfer his personal credit card balance to the congregation’s credit account.
The embezzled money went toward vacations in Hawaii, Mexico and Las Vegas, prosecutors say. Levine also spent thousands of dollars on gym memberships and a personal trainer and purchased expensive leather furnishing and BBQ equipment for his home with the stolen funds.
He hid payments to himself from bookkeepers and executive staff by creating entries for legitimate expenses like “Ritual Fund,” “Rabbi Emeritus” and “High Holidays,” said Laura Duffy, the U.S. Attorney for Southern California. He also created false financial reports and annual budget proposals based on inflated numbers.
“Because of his crime, people lost their jobs, their livelihoods and their lives were changed forever,” the synagogue’s president said.
Duffy said Levine’s deceit started not long after he took the job as executive director in July 2007 and continued until he left the position in Dec. 2013.
“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,” Duffy said after Friday’s sentencing.
Levine could have been sentenced to between 27 and 33 months in federal prison but was given the lesser, 18-month sentence in part because he admitted his crime early and cooperated with investigators.
“We didn’t get to indictment, we didn’t get to a trial in this case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Valerie Chu told NBC 7 News. “He was willing to accept responsibility.”
Judge Sabraw ordered Levine to repay $543,000 to the Beth El congregation and placed him on three years of supervised release when he completes his prison term.
Judge Sabraw told the courtroom audience that the case involved “deeply troubling circumstances” because Levine’s theft victimized both his employer and the 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,” said Sabraw.