A woman who stole nearly $1 million from the Field Museum was sentenced Friday to three years in federal prison.
Caryn Benson employed a simple scam that tallied her some $906,000 over seven years working in the membership department of the museum, by palming money whenever museum visitors paid cash for memberships or drinks at fundraising events.
U.S. District Judge Edmund Chang also ordered Benson to pay back $906,484 in restitution.
Benson wore jeans and a windbreaker to her sentencing hearing, and had no family or supporters with her, though prosecutors had said she spent some of her ill-gotten loot on expensive clothes and gifts for friends and relatives.
She declined to speak when Chang asked her if she wished to make a statement before he handed down her sentence.
“This was a serious offense that was committed not out of financial desperation, but out of greed,” Chang said, noting that the Field Museum is an important, non-profit institution not just in the city but also “the country and the world.”
Chang ruled that Benson had taken all of the $906,000 that a government audit determined had gone missing from 2007 to 2014, though Benson’s lawyers had argued a more likely figure was around $400,000.
Benson admitted to taking money in a plea deal last year, but her lawyer said Benson has always claimed she had no idea exactly how much she took.
Benson’s lawyer explained the $500,000 difference between what Benson said she stole and the amount the government said went missing, pointing out that the money could have gone into the pockets of other museum employees who were stealing and noting Benson’s dismal credit rating even in the years she was embezzling. Benson has two daughters.
“She rented a house. She bought cars on credit,” Benson’s attorney, Anthony Sassan, said. “We’re not disputing that was probably stolen money. What saying is when you add up all these expenditures of cash it doesn’t add up to the $500,000… that’s missing (in the government’s calculation).”
The higher dollar figure added about seven months to the maximum sentence Benson faced, and put Benson on the hook to pay back an additional half-million.
Museum officials have said they were reimbursed for the theft by an insurer.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Georgia Alexakis said “a cloud now hangs over the museum” because of the publicity surrounding Benson’s theft.