Lawrence Hall of Science. Photo Wikimedia Commons
A former employee has admitted to stealing nearly $400,000 from UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science where she worked on the science curriculum . Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A former employee has admitted to stealing nearly $400,000 from UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science where she worked on the science curriculum . Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A former UC Berkeley staffer has been sentenced to 18 months in prison and ordered to repay the nearly $400,000 embezzled from the educational program she worked for, federal prosecutors and the FBI said.

DeSondra Michell Ward admitted in February to stealing $389,948.57 while working at the university’s Lawrence Hall of Science, and was sentenced Tuesday in Oakland by district magistrate Jeffrey White.

As part of the plea deal, Ward admitted to gaming the university’s travel system (an Expedia- or Priceline-like online travel booking website) to buy airplane tickets for friends, family, and herself — for personal purposes — as well as selling the tickets for a profit to others, according to a statement from federal prosecutor Brian Stretch and FBI special agent John Bennett.

Ward’s attorney, Patricia Tilley, declined to comment.

In addition to the airfare embezzlement, Ward used a university credit card for personal purchases, as well as processed vouchers to generate payouts to herself, friends, and family, the statement said.

According to court papers:

  • Airplane tickets that were then sold for profit cost the university $253,377.60
  • Tickets purchased for friends, family and Ward herself accounted for $29,147.40
  • Vouchers Ward processed to reimbursement for fictitious mileage, hotels and expenses totaled $109,024.48 in losses
  • Non-university transactions that were “largely retail” paid for with the university credit card amounted to $15,399.06

The personal purchases included mobile phone bills, YMCA services, gift cards for, and shopping at Target, Barnes & Noble, and The Home Depot, according to the plea agreement obtained by Berkeleyside.

While an employee, Ward drew an initial annual salary of $47,904 when she first began working at Lawrence Hall — in 2008 — as an administrative assistant, and $67,000 at the end of her seven years, according to court documents.

Over the course of the four years, the dollar amount Ward stole decreased incrementally each year, beginning with $79,765.75 in 2010 and ending up at $48,776 in 2014.

Read the full plea agreement.

Ward worked for the Full Option Science System — which was responsible for the science curriculum — and was officially terminated March 9, 2015, according to court documents.

The Lawrence Hall of Science, located in the Berkeley hills, is a public science center that features exhibits, as well as develops and maintains a science curriculum for elementary and middle school students. It was established in 1968 in honor of physicist Ernest Orlando Lawrence (1901–1958), UC’s first Nobel laureate.

“We were devastated when we found out,” Lawrence Hall Deputy Director Susan Gregory told Berkeleyside in a phone interview. “It was a big loss and we moved very quickly to work closely with the campus to address the procedures in place so that it wouldn’t happen again.”

Gregory said that she was unable to comment about direct effects on programming and operations the stolen cashed had caused of the approximately $26 million total budget. But, she expressed hope that the federal judge’s $389,948.57 restitution order would ultimately repair the damage, though she wasn’t sure exactly how the university would recoup the losses.

Other than passing Ward in the hall on occasion, Gregory said that she didn’t know the convicted woman and didn’t work with her.

Ward’s embezzlement used what Gregory called “effective” subterfuge that involved forging signatures, “It was a criminal act.” A whistleblower, who Gregory did not identify, triggered the investigation: an “individual at the Hall” saw a suspicious fax and brought it to the attention of the university’s internal auditing team, which informed campus police and the FBI, she said.

Lieutenant Marc DeCoulode of the university police told Berkeleyside he had difficulty recalling the specifics of the investigation because it was several years ago. He corroborated Ward’s account of the early stages of the investigation.

DeCoulode said that the incident was “unfortunate” and said that instances of financial fraud aren’t common, “but not totally uncommon either,” because of the large numbers of staff and grant monies flowing through the institution.

In addition to the 18-month prison sentence, district magistrate White also ordered Ward placed under supervised release for three years. The former UC staffer was initially charged with five counts of theft from programs receiving federal funds in November of last year.

According to her plea agreement, during probation Ward is required to submit to at-will warrantless searches, and is not permitted to incur debt without permission from her probation officer.

The cash Ward embezzled was, at least in part, from the federal government, which is responsible for 25% of Lawrence Hall’s overall funding, court papers said.

For her part, Gregory said she was relieved and looking toward the future. “We’re happy that campus police and the US Attorney were able to investigate this case and bring the individual to justice,” Gregory said. “We’re trying to recover from it.”

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