Former campus employee pleads guilty to embezzling from Lawrence Hall of Science

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A former UC Berkeley employee pleaded guilty Tuesday to embezzling about $390,000 in federal funds from the Lawrence Hall of Science.

DeSondra Ward, 44, who formerly worked at the Lawrence Hall of Science, reached a plea agreement with the U.S. District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday after admitting to five counts of theft from programs receiving federal funds. In doing so, she waived the right to indictment by a grand jury, according to Abraham Simmons, spokesperson for the U.S. District Attorney’s Office.

Because the Lawrence Hall of Science receives about one-quarter of its funding from federal sources, the FBI worked closely with UCPD and UC Berkeley’s Audit and Advisory Services to investigate the embezzlement, according to a U.S. Department of Justice press release. Given that Ward embezzled money from a program receiving federal funding, the case is under federal jurisdiction, and the U.S. District Attorney charged Ward under federal law.

“We only handle a certain number of types of crimes in this office. It has to be the sort of crime that gains the interest of the federal authorities,” Simmons said.

Ward first worked as an administrative assistant with the Full Option Science System, or FOSS, program and later as a financial analyst with budget and finance responsibilities within FOSS.  From 2008 to 2014, she stole $389,948.57 from the program, according to a press release from the Department of Justice.

Ward used the embezzled money for personal expenditures, including the purchase of plane tickets. She also used her procurement card — a campus-issued card that is used for obtaining goods and services necessary for work-related activities — for personal transactions.

According to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore, Ward’s theft was first discovered by other FOSS staff members. They alerted campus officials in December 2014, who quickly began an internal investigation. Ward’s employment was officially terminated last March.

The embezzlement has prompted the Lawrence Hall of Science to strengthen its oversight of financial transactions, according to Gilmore.

The maximum statutory sentence for each of Ward’s five counts is 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. Although Ward’s sentences could add up to a total of 50 years in prison, Simmons expressed his doubt that Ward would receive the maximum sentence — that decision will be up to Judge Jeffrey S. White, he said.

The sentencing hearing will take place June 21 at the federal courthouse in Oakland.

Contact Adam Iscoe and Chantelle Lee at [email protected].