Calif. Synagogue Ponders Legal Action Against Former Exec
The just departed executive director of Adas Israel Congregation has admitted to intentionally stealing at least $390,000, deceptive record keeping and illegal transferring of funds from a California synagogue during the time he was executive director there.
Eric S. Levine, who was asked to resign on Tuesday from the D.C. synagogue after being executive director for about a month, “apologized and did not deny any of the accusations,” Sonia Israel, president of the Beth El Congregation in La Jolla, Calif., announced in a letter sent to congregants Feb. 12.
Levine, of Bethesda, allegedly stole the money over a five-year period, beginning in 2008, Israel noted. He likely will face time in jail if the California congregation decides to press charges and Levine is found guilty.
Adas Israel’s president also sent out a letter to members of his congregation.
“While there is no indication of any improprieties during Eric’s short time at Adas, we have nonetheless commenced a thorough review of our financial and administrative records,” wrote Arnie Podgorksy.
Right now, Adas Israel is satisfied that no money has been taken from its synagogue, as there were no irregularities found during the audit, a source close to the synagogue said.
After being confronted by the leadership at Beth El, Levine not only admitted what he had done, but he also informed the leadership of Adas Israel of the theft. Adas Israel is not contemplating legal action as the synagogue has not been harmed, the source said.
However, the leadership at Congregation Beth El is considering pressing charges.
“We are consulting with experts in the appropriate areas of law to determine how to proceed with the authorities,” wrote Israel wrote. The synagogue also is investigating how to recover the money from Levine, if possible.
In an effort to keep congregants informed, a town hall meeting has been set for Feb. 26.
Solomon Wisenberg, a partner at the D.C. law firm of Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarborough LLP who specializes in white collar criminal defense, said that Levine is likely to face federal charges.
Wisenberg is not familiar with the case but when told the details, he said that it probably would be a federal case as embezzling almost always involves interstate bank, mail or wire fraud.
“That’s serious,” he said. “He’ll probably do some time” in jail unless the synagogue decides to keep the matter quiet. But considering the entire congregation has been informed and a meeting is planned, Wisenberg said it didn’t sound like that is what Beth El had in mind.
In cases like this, a judge must follow guidelines but is allowed leeway. The final amount of money stolen and the number of people harmed play a role in the sentencing, he explained.
“Presumably if you are stealing from a congregation, you are stealing from all the members who contribute,” said Wisenberg.
Under federal guidelines, a loss of less than $400,000, combined with the harming of more than 250 people, could translate to a sentence of between 21 months to 63 months. A source close to Adas Israel, however, said on Wednesday that Levine’s alleged theft could be closer to $500,000.
Considering that Levine confessed right away and assuming he cooperates with any law enforcement investigation, said Wisenberg, his sentence may be lighter.
According to Beth El’s president, Levine’s financial irregularities “came to light” at the end of January, about 45 days after he stopped working there. Then, in a phone call Sunday, Feb. 9, Levine was confronted by synagogue officials.
“He admitted that the deceptive record keeping and illegal transfer of funds was intentional. He then apologized and did not deny any of the accusations,” Israel wrote in the letter to congregants.
While not everything is known, Israel noted that “Eric was budgeting for improperly used funds. Therefore, we anticipate that our current cash balance and projected receipts for the rest of the year will cover our operating expenses.
“It is never easy to learn that someone you trusted has violated that trust,” continued Beth El’s president. “It is never easy to learn that someone you relied on to guide and protect an institution’s financial security has instead stolen funds for personal use and then covered up his misdeeds. When the institution is a religious organization, a community held together in part by moral and ethical bonds, such a betrayal is even more painful.”
Rabbi Philip Graubart also sent out a message to Beth El congregants, questioning how a community recovers from betrayal and calling the time since he learned of Levine’s misdeeds “a dark several weeks for me personally.”
“We made serious mistakes in trusting Eric,” wrote Graubart. “We were victimized by a skilled liar. We will carry the brokenness with us for a long time.”
Prior to working at the California synagogue, Levine was associate director/director of planning and allocations at the Jewish Federation of San Diego County from April 2005 to July 2007.
When asked about Levine, Michael Sonduck, president and CEO of the Federation in San Diego, told Washington Jewish Week, “I am not going to have any comment at all regarding this matter.”
Calls and emails to Graubart, Israel and others on the rabbinical and staff leadership at Congregation Beth El were not returned.
Levine started working at Adas Israel last month; he had been executive director at Congregation Beth El from July 2007 until December 2013.
Levine is married with young children.