A former chief financial officer of the Philly Pops and the Jewish Exponent admitted Tuesday to stealing more than $1.4 million from nonprofits and using the stolen funds to pay off thousands in credit card debt.
Cheryl Lutts, 43, of Philadelphia, told a federal judge the funds were used to cover travel and accommodation, legal services and funeral expenses, among dozens of more mundane things like her cellphone and his utility bills.
“Did you do what the government said you did? U.S. District Judge Timothy Savage asked Lutts as she pleaded guilty to 24 counts of mail and wire fraud.
Lutts, seated next to her attorney at the defense table, replied with a single word, “Yes.”
Following his guilty plea – which was not part of a deal reached with prosecutors – Lutts now faces up to 20 years in prison on the most serious charge at a sentencing hearing. Savage sentencing scheduled for October.
She offered little in court on Tuesday to explain what prompted her to embezzle funds. His attorney, Maranna J. Meehan, acknowledged that her client was currently undergoing outpatient treatment for opioid addiction.
Lutts’ flight pattern, which spanned four years and two high-ranking positions with notable nonprofits, was all the more notable for the severe financial difficulties both organizations faced in the years prior to his hiring.
About a year before Lutts began her job as director of business operations for Exponent — the second-oldest continuously published Jewish newspaper in the United States and an affiliate of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia — the publication was forced to fire all of its 15-member editorial staff facing average losses of $300,000 a year.
And within months, Lutts began using her position to drain her $1.2 million accounts from 2016. She hid her corruption by tampering with bank statements presented to her employers and secretly pulling out a credit card business in his name.
The federation fired Lutts in 2019 over unrelated performance issues and it was her replacement who discovered the financial anomalies she left in her wake, the organization’s executives have said.
By then, Lutts had already landed a new job as controller of the Philly Pops, the nation’s largest freestanding popular music orchestra and a nonprofit that had just emerged from bankruptcy seven years prior.
There, too, prosecutors say Lutts stole — a total of $254,617.
At the time of Lutts’ arrest last year, a spokesperson for Pops said the nonprofit had fired her months earlier after discovering “questionable dealings” during a review of routine of his books. Even as the Pops investigated their own losses, the FBI contacted them about the issues that had arisen at the exponent.
The Exhibitor and the Pops cooperated with the investigation.