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Ex-La Jolla Music Society finance director pleads guilty to embezzlement

Chris Benavides pleaded guilty in federal court to a wire fraud count on Wednesday for taking more than $650,000 from the company.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — The La Jolla Music Society has filed a lawsuit against its former finance director on the same day he pleaded guilty to embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the nonprofit.

Chris Benavides, 52, pleaded guilty in federal court to a wire fraud count on Wednesday for taking more than $650,000 from the company over the course of nearly a decade.

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Benavides used funds stolen between October 2011 and February 2021 to pay his mortgage, credit cards and other personal expenses.

La Jolla Music Society released the following statement Thursday:

“The Board of Directors and staff of La Jolla Music Society are pleased and relieved that we can now put this incident behind us and move forward. All internal issues that arose as a result of this person’s activities have been rectified, and our financial situation is stable. We look forward to completing the remainder of our Winter Season and launching SummerFest.”

The allegations in Benavides' plea agreement are echoed in the lawsuit filed against him on Wednesday in San Diego Superior Court.

It states that Benavides, who began working for the La Jolla Music Society in 2006, issued "dozens" of checks to himself and falsified the company's accounting records to make the payments appear to be for legitimate business expenses. He also instructed the company's banks to make Automated Clearing House fund transfers to third-party payees, according to the lawsuit.

Last February, the nonprofit's board treasurer discovered that at least nine payments were made from La Jolla Music Society accounts to cover Benavides' mortgage, the lawsuit alleges.

Following an internal investigation, Benavides was fired and the company reported the embezzlement to police.

He's slated to be sentenced in May. While the wire fraud count carries a maximum possible term of 20 years in prison, Benavides' plea agreement states that the government will recommend he be sentenced "to the low end of the advisory guideline range recommended by the government at sentencing."

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