A Virginia man who had research access to the National Archives pleaded guilty yesterday to stealing more than 100 Civil War-era documents from the historic records depository, including letters from Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman and George Armstrong Custer.
In his plea agreement, Howard W. Harner Jr., 68, of Staunton, Va., said that he received more than $47,000 from the illegal sale of many of the documents. About 40 items have been recovered, according to an Archives official.
"We became aware of this because a researcher alerted us to the fact that a document in our holdings was being sold," said Paul Brachfeld, the Archives inspector general.
Harner pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Washington to one count of stealing major artwork and will be sentenced May 26. He faces a possible prison term of up to 10 years and a fine of $250,000. Under federal sentencing guidelines, his probable prison term will be 24 to 30 months, according to federal prosecutors.
Reached by phone at his Virginia home yesterday, Harner declined to comment on the case.
Internal investigative reports made public last year showed that this was not the only case involving lost, stolen or misplaced materials. The reports revealed that hundreds of letters and photographs were missing from the National Archives and Records Administration and its regional offices, including a presidential library.
U.S. Attorney Kenneth L. Wainstein said that Harner received a "researcher identification card" in 1996 and periodically through 2002 visited the Archives building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW in downtown Washington, where he was given access to boxes of documents. Among the contents, according to court documents, were letters written between 1848 and 1866 by various military officers and government officials involved in the Civil War and westward expansion of the United States.
Harner stole 118 documents by hiding them in his clothing, according to Wainstein and Sarah T. Chasson, an assistant U.S. attorney who is prosecuting the case. He later sold many of them to a single private collector, who was not named in the court documents, and placed others for sale through the Butterfields auction house.
Brachfeld, the inspector general, described Harner as a collector and researcher who was particularly interested in pre-Civil War military officers, "people who became famous later on in life" during and after the war. The thefts came to the attention of Archives officials in 2003 when Harner sold a letter written by Confederate Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead that was worth more than $5,000.
Brachfeld said researchers are not permitted to bring coats or briefcases into the research rooms. More recently, the Archives installed hidden cameras in research rooms, elevated the desks there and tightened procedures for receiving researcher identification cards.
"You want to be security conscious, but there is also some reticence about doing bodily searches," Brachfeld said.
At his swearing-in ceremony yesterday, Allan Weinstein, the new U.S. Archivist, announced plans to thoroughly review security issues, including the loss of documents through thefts or mishandling.
"We have zero tolerance for any kind of theft," said National Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper. "The new archivist said he has only anger and contempt for those who abuse the privilege" of Archives research.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.