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Parking attendant pleads guilty in theft of $400,000 from Smithsonian

A parking attendant who was part of a scheme that stole at least $400,000 in lot fees from the Smithsonian Institution’s aircraft museum in Chantilly pleaded guilty Thursday to theft of public money.

Freweyni Mebrahtu, 45, of Sterling is the second person to admit pocketing the $15 parking fee paid by thousands of visitors to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center from October 2009 to July 2012, according to the plea she entered in federal court in Alexandria.

The Chantilly center, an annex of the National Air and Space Museum, includes the space shuttle Discovery in its collection.

Mebrahtu worked about six days a week for Parking Management Inc., a contractor, and masked the money she was stealing by suppressing the vehicle count at the lot, prosecutors said.

She lowered the tally of fees paid by unplugging the electronic vehicle counter in the booth she manned and by holding on to a proof of purchase ticket that should have gone to drivers to be displayed on their vehicles in the lot, court records show.

She also allegedly paid kickbacks to a lot supervisor, who has not been named in court, according to her plea in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Mebrahtu is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 18.

In September, Meseret Terefe, 36, of Silver Spring pleaded guilty to the same charge for stealing parking fees. A third defendant charged in the case has since died, said Peter Carr, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride.

After the September plea, PMI President Kingdon Gould III said his company had alerted federal officials about apparent losses “and we have been cooperating in this investigation since then and continue to cooperate to help them get the bad guys.”

Mary Pat Flaherty works on investigative and long-range stories. Her work has won numerous national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

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