Visitors to Air and Space Museum Made Parking Attendant Rich

Have you ever been to the new Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Va. near D.C. – the one near Dulles Airport that features the Space Shuttle, the Concorde, the Enola Gay, and a lot more? If you did you may recall that the $15 parking fee is a bit steep. You also may not be aware that your money wasn’t necessarily going to help fund the museum. It was going to help fund the lifestyle of the parking attendants.

Smithsonian visitors unknowingly gave Mr. Meseret Terefe a total of nearly $500,000 over the course of his duties. Two other parking attendants were guilty of the same thing.

I live only a mile from the museum. I went there a lot during his three-year tenure, but fortunately he never got any of my money. That’s because of you’re a local like me, you know that parking is free after 4:00 pm, until when the museum closes at 5:30 pm.

Seems he was “unplugging the electronic vehicle counters installed in the parking booths” or “not handing customers a serialized parking ticket to display” in order to pull off his embezzlement.

Still, it makes one wonder. Couldn’t the management of the Air and Space Museum have been more vigilant over those three years? I mean $500,000 – that’s a heck of a lot of revenue to let go down the drain. Couldn’t someone working there have entertained the possibility that an enterprising parking attendant could theoretically get away with something like that, and that therefore he or she should be monitored for possible discrepancies? Couldn’t someone have done an occasional estimate of the number of cars in the parking lot for a given day, and figure out that revenues were far less than what they should have been?

According to court documents, shortly after Terefe started working there in 2009, Ms. Freweyni Mebrahtu told him he was putting her and others at risk by not stealing, because the number of cars he was reporting was higher than others’ reported numbers. Not long after he got on board with the scheme, one of his managers – who court documents only identify as A.H. – insisted on getting half of the ill-gotten gains. Another participant in the scheme was Ms. Genete Yigzu, who according to a Department of Justice spokesperson has since passed away.

If Terefe noticed that the number of cars he was reporting was significantly higher than those of booths manned by other co-workers, why didn’t anyone at Udvar-Hazy or PMI (the parking contractor) notice that as well?

Rule 1 is to always assume or at least entertain the possibility that anyone accepting cash that doesn’t belong to them may not always act honestly, and that extra efforts should be made to keep tabs on that person or persons.

Carrying out periodic visual car counts, especially using video surveillance footage, and comparing that with the number of reported vehicles should have been a no-brainer. Another mistake was badly designed parking booths. The embezzlers unplugged the vehicle counter whenever they pocketed the cash.

So have redundant vehicle counting mechanisms in place, for starters. Separate the vehicle counters from the booths, as well. Do adequate background checks on workers. Consider moving to a non-cash system, like what Metro did in 2004 after millions of dollars went missing from its lots. And keep better tabs on workers, especially those handling cash.

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BTW the museum is known as the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum. No, Udvar and Hazy aren’t the names of two great scientists who discovered a comet or whatever. Udvar-Hazy is the last name of the main donor to the museum. A pet peeve of mine is that on the nearby highways, signs for the museum state “Udvar – Hazy Air and Space Museum.” First of all the signs have bad punctuation. It should be Udvar-Hazy not Udvar – Hazy. Second of all, except for one of the newer highway signs on the Beltway near Tysons Corner, nowhere do the signs say that it’s the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. So motorists may be thinking it’s just another air and space museum, not the Smithsonian air and space museum. Talk about poor marketing skills of whoever made the signs,  and of whoever has left the signs that way for the past seven years or however long the museum has been around.

That’s the government for ya.

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