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Ex-Field Museum worker pleads guilty to embezzlement, disputes amount

A Field Museum employee charged with embezzling nearly $1 million from the Field Museum pleaded guilty to federal charges Monday. Caryn Benson, 38, a former museum clerk, admitted she pocketed money when people paid cash for memberships or bought drink tickets at museum fundraisers. | Field Museum photo

An ex-employee charged with embezzling nearly $1 million from the Field Museum pleaded guilty to federal charges Monday. But she claims she stole less than half the amount federal prosecutors claim she pocketed, court records indicate.

Caryn Benson, 38, a former museum clerk, admitted she pocketed money whenever people paid cash for museum memberships or bought drink tickets at museum fundraisers. Benson even concedes she swiped $33,014 in a little over a year, from January 2014 to April 2015. Federal prosecutors pegged the amount Benson stole at $903,284 over seven years, but Benson only admits to taking a total of $410,000, according to a plea agreement entered in federal court Monday.

A federal judge will decide which dollar amount is correct at a sentencing hearing in August, and the half million-dollar difference between the two sides will weigh heavily in the amount of jail time Benson could serve — as well as how much she has to pay back to the museum.

Based on the government’s much-higher dollar amount, Benson could face up to three years in prison. Benson’s attorney thinks she is in line for no more than two years, based on his calculations of the museum’s losses.

Benson was charged in December with a single count of embezzlement.

The museum noted a $903,284 theft in tax records filed with the IRS, and a museum spokesman last month said Benson’s scam wasn’t particularly sophisticated.

“The employee was signing members up, pocketing the cash and then giving them a temporary member card without putting the payment in the system,” Ray DeThorne, the museum’s chief marketing officer, said in December.

DeThorne said Monday that a series of audits found that Benson was acting alone, and that no other employees were found stealing in similar fashion. The museum has since instituted practices and controls — including installing video surveillance of all areas where cash is handled– to prevent anyone from duplicating Benson’s scheme.

Museum memberships cost between $70 and $145 per year, and members who signed up with Benson still got member cards and other benefits despite the fact Benson had pocketed their payments, DeThorne said.

Benson had worked for the museum since 2003, and began stealing in 2008. Her theft was caught when the museum restructured its operations in April 2014, and museum officials noticed a “discrepancy” between the number of members signed up and the amount of cash taken in. The museum was reimbursed for the lost money by their insurance company, museum officials said.

Benson’s attorney, Anthony Sasson, did not immediately return calls from the Chicago Sun-Times.