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Criminal Sentence Based On Estimates of Loss, Not Plea

Criminal Sentence Based On Estimates of Loss, Not Plea

Museum membership seller pocketed cash from sale of memberships, drinks at fundraisers

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a three-year prison sentence for a data-records supervisor at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, who pled guilty to stealing $33,000 as part of what the Museum claimed was a $900,000 binge over six years.  The Court affirmed the sentence based on guidelines for theft between $550,000 and $1.5 million.

Caryn Benson was hired in 2007 and given responsibility for selling museum memberships.  When a customer purchased membership, she was supposed to record the sale in the Museum’s financial software and on a membership database.  About a year later, she began to pocket cash from cash sales while recording the transaction in the membership system, but not the cash system.  She then generated fraudulent reports to reconcile the differences.  She also stole cash when she sold beverage tickets at museum fundraisers.

When one of her co-workers saw her fail to record a membership in the financial system in 2014, the Court said, “the jig was up.”  At the same time, another staff member realized the membership revenue was short “by a non-negligible amount.”  Human Resources confronted Benson and she confessed to the theft.  She was immediately fired.

The government charged her with theft of $33,014 from a program receiving federal funds, to which she pleaded guilty.  She also agreed to pay restitution “arising from the relevant conduct.”  The government believed that her theft amounted to roughly $900,000, while Benson said it was only about $410,000.

The government relied on an analysis of a forensic accountant.  He compared the money received from membership sales to the number of memberships sold and concluded that the Museum had about $873,000 less than it should have.  He compared the paperwork for four sample months and found a close match with the discrepancy and concluded that the Museum’s entire loss was caused by her.  He also found that she stole roughly $33,000 from beverage ticket sales. 

The trial court accepted the reasoning and imposed a sentence of three years in prison, one year of supervised release, and $903,284 in restitution.  It used sentencing guidelines for theft between $550,000 and $1.5 million, not the $33,000 to which she had accepted guilt.

The trial court denied a reduction in sentence for “acceptance of responsibility” because it said her acceptance would have been “a very technical acceptance.”  It said she did not admit to more than half of the loss amount.  It also said that she never expressed remorse for her conduct.

The Court of Appeals affirmed “because the government demonstrated that Benson is more likely than not culpable for all of the museum’s losses.”   (U.S. v. Benson, Seventh Circuit, No. 17-1944, 7/31/18.)


It is not just the charges or conviction that may be used to determine a criminal sentence.  Courts have the power under certain circumstances to consider other activities in determining the sentence to be served.

Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals

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