ST. LOUIS COUNTY • Paid for speed in handling documents pulled from 100 million federal employee records, two workers at the National Personnel Records Center here have admitted dumping, destroying or misfiling at least 1,800 of them, court records show.
Among them are 241 documents found in 2012, discarded in woods near the center, off Interstate 270 in the Spanish Lake area. There were 300 names and Social Security numbers visible on them.
Both former employees have pleaded guilty to a federal misdemeanor charge. Civil court records show that five other workers had “disproportionate percentages” of missing documents but were not prosecuted. It isn’t clear how many records might be missing altogether.
U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan emphasized Thursday that an audit determined only one veteran was known to be affected, and the document at issue was re-created. Many veterans whose files were affected are dead, he said. He noted that the records involved were individual documents, not entire personnel files.
Callahan said employees were compensated by the number of records they filed. He said he doesn’t know whether that ought to be changed or better supervised, “But I’m confident that the records center … has addressed it.”
The National Archives and Records Administration referred questions to the Office of Inspector General, where a report on the incident has not been completed. That office did not respond to messages seeking comment.
A formal statement from David S. Ferriero, the U.S. archivist, lauded investigators who “helped to stop the actions of the individuals involved, and to protect these irreplaceable records.”
One of the ex-employees, Lonnie Halkmon, 28, was sentenced Thursday to two years of probation and ordered to perform 40 hours of community service. The other, Stanley Engram, 21, is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 7. Both pleaded guilty of destruction of government records. Federal guidelines call for a sentence from probation to six months behind bars.
Court documents show that the files in the woods were traced to Engram, who admitted disposing of them, “abandoning” others in the center and throwing some away at home. In all, he admitted destroying or deliberately misfiling more than 1,000 records.
His lawyer, Eric Banks, said Thursday, “Stanley is very contrite. I have known him for over 10 years. He’s my pastor’s son. I’ve never seen anybody more sorrowful. He just made a terrible error in judgment.”
Banks stressed that “nobody has been denied or lost any benefits as a result of any of this.”
Halkmon’s plea says the center audited records handled by 41 employees in 2011-12 and found that of more than 1,200 records assigned to him, 850 were missing. Most workers had an error rate of 3 percent, although five other employees had disproportionately high figures, according to a court document.
Callahan said the error rates of the other employees were not sufficient for charges.
“These were students,” he said. “In our judgment, the misdemeanor charge was enough to put anyone else working there on notice that these records had to be treated with greater sanctity.”
Halkmon and Engram both began working at the center through a student temporary employment program. Halkmon had been there since 2005 and resigned rather than be terminated. He was denied unemployment benefits and lost an appeal.
Court documents in the unemployment case say some employees, seeking to earn a bonus, were intentionally “stashing” records to finish more quickly, and that those documents may never be found among the vast holdings.
In court Thursday, Halkmon’s public defender, Lucille Liggett, said he was “sincerely remorseful,” and noted that no records assigned to him were destroyed or removed from the center. Halkmon did not make a statement.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Nanette Baker said that while she didn’t know why Halkmon misfiled the records, she hoped he “understood the seriousness” and the potential impact on people’s lives.
The center, long housed in a building in Overland, moved to a new $115 million home on Dunn Road, just east of Highway 367, in 2011. It houses 100 million individual files dating from the 1800s in 4.2 million cardboard cartons. About 57 million of the files are for military personnel.
In 1973, a huge fire at the Overland site destroyed or damaged the files of about 22 million Army veterans from 1912-59 and Air Force veterans from 1947-63.
Informed of the new loss of records Thursday, Frank Demos, president of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 794, in Florissant, said, “Oh, my God, that’s terrible. Probably the worst thing that has happened to the archives since the fire.”