Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird in the National Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
The Smithsonian Institution's National Air And Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA, houses some of the world's most famous aircraft, including the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay; and the Space Shuttle Discovery.
You might not have realized it but the Parking Management Inc. ("PMI") booth at the Udvar-Hazy Center is now competing for the attention of visitors. Virtually overnight, this modest structure has been transformed into a hotbed of criminal conduct - well, okay, maybe thats more than a bit of hyperbole.
PMI has a fixed-rate contract with the Smithsonian to operate the 2,000 vehicle parking lot for which visitors pay $15 per day. $15 a day to park? Wow! Then again, along with the Apollo module, more than a few things have gone to the moon over the years.
On August 4, 2012, PMI parking booth attendants Freweyni Mebrahtu, 45, of Sterling, VA; Meseret Terefe, 36, of Silver Spring, MD; and Genete Yigzu, 46, of Alexandria, VA, were charged in three separate criminal complaints with embezzling and stealing federal monies belonging to the Smithsonian Institution. The two women (Mebrathu and Yigzu), and Terefe were arrested by agents of the Smithsonian Office of Inspector General and Federal Bureau of Investigation after finishing their shifts at the Udvar-Hazy Center.
According to a court-filed Affidavit, in April 2009, the three arrested PMI employees each began stealing parking fees. Closed-circuit television cameras purportedly captured Mebrathu, Terefe, and Yigzu repeatedly unplugging electronic vehicle counters located in each attendant's booth as a way to manipulate accurate vehicle counts. Pointedly, Terefe was observed hiding a bundle of cash taken from the entrance fees in a side pocket of his red duffel bag, which he took with him at the end of his shift.
Court documents allege that on some days, Mebrathu and Terefe each stole more than $4,000 from the Smithsonian. Yigzu is accused of stealing as much as $1,185 on a single day. After some three years of this alleged skimming, the Smithsonian apparently was short changed by at least $400,000
NOTE: Criminal complaints are only charges and not evidence of guilt. A defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
Not that the feds shouldn't be going after corruption and crime but, geez, parking attendants skimming the day's receipts? A few months ago, I reported about a case in which armed federal agents apparently stormed the Gibson Guitar Company in an effort to seize some disputed imported wood: Gibson Les Paul Guitars With Less Ebony ("Street Sweeper" August 7, 2012). All of which sort of makes me wonder about priorities, triage, and the politics of prosecution. A crime is a crime is a crime and all of that but, I dunno, seems that the federal government is getting really granular with its microscope. Notwithstanding, if the charges prove true, these three parking attendants are thieves and deserve jail and should be required to make full restitution. I've got no sympathy for them - particularly after getting gouged for a $15 daily parking fee.
On September 28, 2012 and November 1, 2012, respectively Terefe and Mebrahtu each pled guilty to theft of public money in the amount of at least $400,000 in Smithsonian visitor parking fees and at their scheduled sentencing, they each face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
As part of their pleas, each defendant admitted to stealing the $15 entrance fee using one of two schemes:
Through resort to either of the two deceptive practices, the defendants personally retained the entrance fees from all unreported vehicles.
A portion of Terefe's criminal proceeds were stored in his Silver Spring residence or used to purchase an interest in commercial property in Ethiopia. Mebrahtu and Terefe both admitted to paying a portion of the stolen proceeds to the location manager at the lot.