Archives Thief Gets Two Years

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005

A Virginia man was sentenced yesterday to two years in prison for stealing more than 100 Civil War-era documents from the National Archives, including some he tried to sell on eBay.

Howard Harner, 68, took letters authored by Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and other historical figures. Federal prosecutors sought a lengthy sentence to help discourage trafficking in stolen American history.

Harner, of Staunton, pleaded guilty in March to hiding the documents in his clothing and smuggling them out of a National Archives research room from 1996 to 2002. Prosecutors said he made $47,314 by selling the documents to a history buff and through various auctions.

He expressed remorse to U.S. District Judge James Robertson and pledged to do whatever he could to help recover 61 documents that still are missing. The judge then handed down the two-year sentence and ordered Harner to pay a $10,000 fine.

Authorities caught Harner after a Civil War researcher from Pennsylvania noticed on eBay that someone was trying to sell a letter written by Confederate Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead. The researcher recalled reviewing the document at the National Archives and notified archives officials.

The thefts led to tight new regulations that require checking researchers' shoes and clothes as they enter and leave the building and forbidding anyone to bring purses into the research room. All four archivists for the agency's Civil War collection attended the sentencing yesterday.

"This sentence sends a very clear signal that theft of cultural property belonging to the American people will not be tolerated," U.S. Archivist Allen Weinstein said in a statement.

Weinstein urged manuscript dealers and collectors to cooperate with authorities in their search for the other missing documents.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Chasson said that Harner caused two kinds of damage.

"Not only is a piece of the nation's history gone, but it's also had serious ramifications for the operations of the archives and is going to have the effect of crimping the freedom that researchers have at the archives," she said. "There's a trust that's been broken between the archives and researchers who rely on it."

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