La Jolla Music Society finance director accused of embezzling $113,000 is fired after investigation

The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center is home to the La Jolla Music Society.

The La Jolla Music Society director of finance, accused of embezzling about $113,000, has been dismissed following an internal investigation, the organization said.

A police report has been filed, but Music Society leaders said they are still determining whether to pursue legal action.

A statement issued March 1 indicated that LJMS fired Chris Benavides after determining that he diverted business funds for his personal use. The payments were discovered during a financial review by the chairman of LJMS’ finance committee, Stephen Gamp.

LJMS President and Chief Executive Todd Schultz said that the alleged embezzlement was discovered last month when a transaction initiated by Benavides was questioned by members of the finance committee and was investigated further. Benavides was asked to explain the transaction.

“He did not have a satisfactory answer,” Schultz said. “So we looked into it and established what was happening. On Feb. 20, we met with him and he confirmed the diversion of funds was for personal use. He did not specify what the funds were used for, but we know some of the transfers were to a mortgage company and we are investigating the rest.”

Benavides could not be reached for comment.

According to Shultz, Benavides said he had accidentally used the society’s bank account.

LJMS leadership filed a report with the San Diego Police Department, as required to file an insurance claim and recoup some, if not all, of the lost money.

Police spokesman Scott Lockwood said the department’s economic crimes unit has been notified. After completing an investigation, the unit will present any evidence it has gathered to the San Diego County district attorney’s office, which will determine whether to file charges.

“Since something of this nature previously seemed inconceivable, there also is an ongoing full review to revisit and modify as needed all existing procedures, internal controls and approval processes,” according to the Music Society’s statement.

“We have to complete an investigation to understand the scope of what happened,” Schultz said. “We will hire a forensic accountant to go through our books. We know some of what happened, but we need to know more.”

LJMS will consider civil action upon completion of the forensic audit and determination of the total loss.

The thefts allegedly occurred during the 2019-20 fiscal year. Schultz said he’s confident they would have been identified sooner or later.

“With the process we have now, we caught it, so I feel like our systems are solid,” he said. “Part of the investigation will not only be what happened but where the weakness was that enabled it to happen. But it’s premature to say what we need to change.”

“It was inevitable that this would be found, because we have an audit every year, and the year under which this started is about to be reviewed,” Schultz added. “During that review, we’re certain it would have been discovered. There are two aspects to the process that would have caught this, and the first one caught it. If it hadn’t, the audit would have.”

LJMS’ home, the $82 million Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center at 7600 Fay Ave., opened in 2019. It contains a 500-seat concert hall, a 2,000-square-foot flexible performance space, a meeting/reception room and a large central courtyard. Schultz said LJMS has no accumulated debt and has fully covered The Conrad’s construction costs.

But that doesn’t ease the sting for some.

“For the staff who have been here a long time, it’s tremendously difficult,” said Schultz, who was hired in December. “[Benavides] was with the company for 15 years and part of the fabric of the organization.”

Existing staff, with the support of the outside auditors, will manage the financial operation while interviews for a new director of finance are conducted, according to LJMS’ statement.

“La Jolla Music Society remains well-equipped to continue implementing its artistic and education programs throughout 2021,” the statement said.

— San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer George Varga contributed to this report.