A former financial director for the Philly Pops and the Jewish Exponent was charged Friday with embezzling more than $1.4 million from the nonprofits whose books she was charged with overseeing.
Federal prosecutors said Cheryl Lutts, 42, of Philadelphia, used the stolen funds to pay off thousands of dollars at a time on her personal American Express bill. The money went toward covering expenses for travel and lodging, legal services, and funeral costs, among dozens of more mundane things like her cell phone and utilities bills, according to the 24-count wire and mail fraud indictment in her case.
The court filing detailed a pattern of theft that stretched over four years in high-ranking positions with two employers — a trail of graft made all the more serious due to financial struggles faced by both nonprofits in the years before she was hired.
“Nonprofit organizations exist for the people and constituencies they serve, not as personal piggy banks for those entrusted with managing their funds,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams in a statement.
Roughly a year before Lutts started her job as director of business operations for the Exponent — the second-oldest, continuously published Jewish newspaper in the United States and a subsidiary of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia — the publication was forced to lay off its entire 15-member editorial staff in the face of losses averaging $300,000 a year.
And yet within months, investigators said, she began using her position to drain its accounts of $1.2 million between 2016 and 2019 and hid her embezzlement by doctoring bank statements she presented to her employers and secretly taking out a corporate credit card in her name.
The federation fired Lutts then for unrelated performance issues, Steven Rosenberg, its chief operating officer, said Friday. As soon as she was gone, her replacement began discovering a series of inexplicable financial anomalies.
But by then, Lutts had already landed a new job working as the controller for the Philly Pops, the largest stand-alone popular music orchestra in the country and a nonprofit that had emerged from bankruptcy just seven years before. There, too, prosecutors say, she stole — a total of $254,617.
Austin Berner, a spokesperson for the Pops, said in a statement that the nonprofit fired Lutts in October after discovering several “questionable transactions” last year during a routine review of its books. Even as they were investigating their own losses, he said, the FBI reached out to them regarding the problems that had surfaced at the Exponent.
“We are cooperating fully with the investigation,” Berner said in a statement. “We have no further comment at this time pending the results of that investigation.”
The Exponent, meanwhile, managed to recover most of its loss through insurance and is now in better financial shape, Rosenberg said. But he remained eager Friday to see Lutts prosecuted.
“It’s about justice for us now,” he said. “Thankfully she’s facing a significant sentence.”
Lutts remained in custody Friday pending a bail hearing next week and could not be reached for comment. She could face decades in prison if she is convicted. It was not clear whether she had retained an attorney.
Staff writer Peter Dobrin contributed to this article.