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EDITORIAL: Spaced out at the Smithsonian

Lack of concern for the public’s money encouraged embezzlement scheme

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Accustomed to free access to Smithsonian museums, visitors to the National Air and Space Museum's center in Chantilly can be taken aback by the hefty $15 parking fee. They'd feel even worse if they knew the government-backed institution was so careless with their hard-earned money that a sizable chunk of that cash has been lining the pockets of parking-lot booth attendants. The shenanigans persisted for three years, until last July when the alleged perpetrators were arrested.

More than two-thirds of the on-site revenue for the museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center comes from parking fees. Despite the amount of money involved, oversight was so lax that, according to the FBI and the Smithsonian Office of Inspector General, parking employee Meseret Terefe was said to have been able to take $487,515 without anyone noticing. Mr. Terefe faces two years in prison as he heads to a sentencing hearing scheduled for Friday. A purported co-conspirator, Freweyni Mebrahtu, is to be sentenced on Feb. 8.

According to court documents, the employees who were stealing told the ones who weren't that their honesty was creating a risk. The pilferers worried that someone would realize that certain employees regularly reported higher numbers of cars entering the lot than other workers. One of the managers, only identified as A.H., reportedly insisted he was entitled to half of the loot for his role in the scheme. If it was obvious to the crooks how they could be caught, Smithsonian officials and contractor Parking Management Inc. (PMI) should have been watching for such conduct.

It's all too common for government-sponsored entities to fail to treat other people's money with respect. In this case, Smithsonian was too trusting of those who were handling the cash. Extra efforts should have been made to keep tabs on the funds. Periodic visual car counts should have been made and compared with the number of vehicles reported. On a given day, there were many more cars in the parking lot than what was reported, according to investigators.

Another mistake was installing poorly designed parking booths. The embezzlers were able to simply unplug electronic vehicle counters whenever they wanted to stuff money into their pockets. While PMI tried to secure the plugs to the outlet with plastic straps, they were easily removed. The car counters shouldn't have been located inside the booths in the first place, within easy reach of enterprising manipulators. Museum authorities at least could have periodically inspected the booths, wherein they would have found evidence of tampering.

A Smithsonian spokesman said the museum has learned its lesson and "is confident that measures implemented by the contractor after the theft came to light are adequate to prevent further theft in the near future." That's a good start. The spokesman added, "The Smithsonian is studying other options for parking operations in the future." Those options need to be robust, as tourists shouldn't be ripped off when visiting one of the capital area's favorite museums.

The Washington Times

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