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Penrod Society stung by $380,000 theft

December 30, 2008

The Penrod Society is reeling from news that one of its top volunteers allegedly absconded with $380,000 - every penny the organization earned from its annual art fair, plus reserves.

"It's devastating news for us. It's devastating news for the arts community," said President Jimmy Art.

The 42-year-old society stages the Penrod Arts Fair, held each September on the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and uses its earnings to make grants. Named for Booth Tarkington's character Penrod Schofield, the society has about 125 active members who tend to be professional men in their 20s and 30s.

In that regard, the alleged embezzler fits the society profile.

Brandon Benker was a junior auditor at Indianapolis-based Somerset CPAs, where he had been promoted twice since his hiring in 2005. He also was a Penrod volunteer who had been a treasurer and had access to society money.

Benker resigned from the firm in late November, around the time he hired top criminal defense attorney Jim Voyles, said Somerset President Pat Early.

"He spent all the money, or lost it, or whatever he did with it, and realized he was going to get caught," said Early, himself a Penrod president in the '90s. "So before he got caught, he went to an attorney."

Voyles would not comment other than to confirm that he is representing Benker.

A detective in the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department's financial crimes unit is investigating, but hasn't filed charges, said Sgt. Amichael Cummins.

Society President Art said the money was stolen over at least nine months. The theft went unnoticed until Voyles called a board member in late November, Art said.

Art declined to name Benker, but in a press release said the suspect was a "financial professional" and "assistant treasurer" of the society.

"He was given responsibility for writing some of The Penrod Society's checks and managing some of the society's money," the statement said. "According to his attorney, he allegedly had a gambling problem and stole our money to finance that problem."

In an interview, Art said, "Clearly, we lacked certain controls that any not-for-profit organization should have. We relied heavily on trust. We're paying the price here, and asking some questions."

The society has set up committees to review governance rules and collect donations.

Benker prepared the 2007 annual financial statement, filed with the Internal Revenue Service, but the treasurer's post this year went to another Somerset CPA, Gene Zoellner. "He had absolutely nothing to do with what we're talking about," Art said of Zoellner.

Benker continued to write checks this year. However, it isn't clear why he had continued access to society finances after he no longer was treasurer.

Art sent a letter Dec. 5 telling Penrod's roughly 425 active and honorary members about the theft, and making an appeal for donations. The society since has collected at least $100,000, and Art said it will try to fulfill its grant-making mission to some extent.

In past years, Penrod has given out $50,000 to $100,000 in grants to local arts groups depending on the fair's success.

The fair, traditionally held in early September, will go on in 2009. "The fair is not in jeopardy in any way," Art said.

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