The Smithsonian Museum in Washington. (mateoutah / flickr )
WASHINGTON -- A parking attendant has pleaded guilty to stealing at least $400,000 in visitor parking fees by undercounting vehicles entering the lot at the Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.
Meseret Terefe, 36, an employee of Parking Management Inc., worked as a booth attendant at the Udvar-Hazy Center, which is the annex location of the Air & Space Museum. The center is home to the space shuttle Discovery.
“Mr. Terefe admitted today to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from one of America’s most revered institutions,” Neil H. MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement dated Friday, when Terefe entered his plea. “Especially during a time of challenging budgets, this fraud is extremely troubling.”
Terefe, of Silver Spring, Md., usually worked only on weekends. By underreporting the number of cars entering the parking lot, he was able to pocket between $1,800 and $4,500 during a daily shift.
To steal the $15 parking fees, Terefe indicated in a statement filed with his plea, he would repeatedly unplug the vehicle counter installed in his booth. Alternatively, he would fail to hand a customer the serialized ticket which is used to track the number of cars entering the lot.
Terefe stated that he shared the stolen money with one of his managers after the manager approached him and warned that if he wished to continue stealing, he must hand over half of the proceeds.
The parking lot holds about 2,000 vehicles and the three-year loss to the Smithsonian Institution is at least $400,000.
Parking Management’s president, Kingdon Gould III, said Monday that he is not familiar with all the details of Terefe’s plea but that the company is continuing to cooperate with the investigation.
“The Smithsonian is a wonderful institution, which offers an amazing array of exhibits and educational programs to the public -- which takes a lot of work and money. Anything which takes away from this focus is regrettable,” Gould said.
“PMI has hundreds of fine employees who should be recognized for their good work, not this,” he added.
Terefe kept a portion of the stolen money at his home in Silver Spring and used the rest to buy an interest in commercial property in Ethiopia.
The case was jointly investigated by the Smithsonian Office of the Inspector General and the FBI’s Washington Field Office.
Terefe was arrested Aug. 4 and will be sentenced Dec. 14. He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years if found guilty.
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