ALEXANDRIA, VA—Meseret Terefe, 36, of Silver Spring, Maryland, pled guilty today to stealing at least $400,000 of visitor parking fees belonging to the Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.
Neil H. MacBride, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia; Scott S. Dahl, Inspector General for the Smithsonian Institution; and James W. McJunkin, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, made the announcement after the plea was accepted by United States District Judge T. S. Ellis, III.
“Mr. Terefe admitted today to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from one of America’s most revered institutions,” said U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride. “Especially during a time of challenging budgets, this fraud is extremely troubling.”
Terefe was arrested on August 4, 2012, and pled guilty today to theft of public money. He faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison when he is sentenced on December 14, 2012.
In a statement of facts filed with his plea agreement, Terefe admitted that from March 2009 and continuing through July 2012, he was an employee of Parking Management Inc. (PMI) and worked as a booth attendant at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center parking lot. The Udvar-Hazy Center is the annex location of the Air & Space Museum and is home to the Space Shuttle Discovery and other historic aircraft. These two Smithsonian sites display the largest collection of aircraft and spacecraft in the world. PMI began managing the center’s parking lot, which holds approximately 2,000 vehicles, in March 2009.
Terefe admitted that he began stealing parking fees in late 2009 by either repeatedly unplugging the electronic vehicle counters installed in the parking booths or by not handing customers a serialized parking ticket to display in the car windshield after they paid their entrance fee. These tactics allowed Terefe to underreport the true number of vehicles entering the facility. He and other booth attendants discussed tactics for stealing parking revenues, and Terefe stated that one of his managers approached him and demanded that Terefe pay him half of the stolen proceeds in order to continue his criminal activity.
The statement of facts states that Terefe stole between $1,800 and nearly $4,500 during a daily shift working at the Smithsonian, and the three-year loss to the Smithsonian attributable to Terefe is at least $400,000. Terefe stored a portion of the cash proceeds at his residence in Silver Spring and used some of the proceeds to purchase an interest in commercial property in Ethiopia.
The investigation was initiated by the Smithsonian Office of the Inspector General and jointly investigated by the FBI’s Washington Field Office. Assistant United States Attorney Jasmine Yoon and Special Assistant United States Attorney James McDonald are prosecuting the case on behalf of the United States.