Military Records Destroyed: Does the punishment fit the crime?

By Charlton Stanley, Weekend Contributor

National Record Center St LouisThe National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis County, MO is the repository of millions of personnel, health, and medical records of discharged and deceased veterans of all services during the 20th century. Records from before WWI are kept in Washington, DC. The Center also stores and maintains the records of dependents and other persons treated at medical facilities owned and operated by the US military.

Or at least it’s supposed to.

In 1973 a fire broke out in the Center. The fire destroyed or damaged files of approximately twenty-two million Army veterans from 1912 to 1959. The records of Air Force veterans from 1947 to 1963 were affected. In all, about one-third of the records stored there were destroyed or badly damaged. The exact cause of the fire was never determined, but investigators suspected careless cigarette smoking in the records area.

Last year, the Center discovered two employees, Lonnie Halkmon, age 28, and Stanley Engram, age 21, had destroyed or deliberately misfiled more than 1,800 records. Both men entered guilty pleas in Federal court to misdemeanor charges of destruction of government records.

Halkmon started working at the center in 2005. In his guilty plea, Halkmon says there was an “incident,” following which, the center audited all records that had been assigned to employees in 2011 and 2012.

The audit covered 41 employees and Halkmon had the highest error rate. According to a state appellate court finding, most employees had an error rate of 3 percent. However, there were a half-dozen employees disproportionate error rates. Halkmon and Engram had the worst error rates. A state investigation showed that some employees were intentionally misfiling, or “stashing,” records to finish more quickly in order to earn an incentive bonus. Of the others with high error rates, the errors were not sufficient to warrant charges being filed.

The audit showed that from Dec. 7, 2011 to March 28, 2012, more than 1,200 files were assigned to Halkmon. Of those twelve hundred files, 850 were missing.

Engram admitted to disposing of records in a forested area near the Center as well as “abandoning” files inside the Center. He also admitted to throwing some of them them away at his home. In all, he admitted to the destruction or purposely misfiling more than a thousand records. 241 of the military records assigned to Engram were found in the woods near the center on July 3, 2012. About 300 names and Social Security numbers were clearly visible on the documents.

The total number of files that are missing is unknown, and many may never be located due to the huge volume of records at the center. There were no extra copies of those records, either paper or digital.

Under Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the penalty for the charges as filed could range from probation to six months in prison. Last Thursday, Halkmon was sentenced to two years of probation and forty hours of community service.

Public Defender Lucille Liggett, representing Halkmon, said that he was “sincerely remorseful” for his actions. She emphasized that none of Halkmon’s records were destroyed or removed from the center. Halkmon did not make a statement to the Court at his sentencing. Liggett declined to comment following the hearing.

When she sentenced Halkmon, US. Magistrate Judge Nanette Baker said that although she didn’t know why Halkmon had committed the crime, she hoped he understood the seriousness of what he had done and the impact it could have on veterans’ lives.

Engram will be sentenced next Friday, on February 7. Halkmon did not admit to removing records from the building, but Engram did.  We will be watching next week to see what Magistrate Judge Baker does about him.

Question: Did the sentence of a week of community service and six months probation fit the actual crime? We often see prosecutors overcharging defendants. The charges they have pleaded guilty to are misdemeanor destruction of government records. Were these defendants undercharged?

Sources:

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Stars and Stripes

15 thoughts on “Military Records Destroyed: Does the punishment fit the crime?

  1. Chuck,
    That is an amazing story. Our family was personally impacted by the fire at the St. Louis repository. My dad was in the Army Air Corps during WWII. After WWII, the Army AirCorps became the Air Force and my father’s reserve group was recalled in 1951. When my mother requested records years ago, in order to apply for survivor benefits for herself and me and my siblings, she was told of the fire. I have since learned from a source who investigates records issues that the fire started in the middle of the alphabet and spread outward. I know of a friend whose last name begins with “A” and his records and his deceased brother’s records were intact. Veterans in the “R” section were not so lucky.
    To read that someone would destroy and stash records that some families have been searching for is disturbing. I do think these defendants were undercharged. They may have wittingly or unwittingly robbed many families of a history of their loved ones that they may not be able to recover. I am still dismayed that the NPRC is still having trouble protecting veterans records.

  2. I believe given the importance of these records the sentence was a bit weak. The misfiling is bad but necessarily criminal to me. The removal and disposal of the files is. One way I would judge it would be the severity of impact those whos records were stolen could be an aggravating factor. I don’t know how much this is.

    In my state theft of public records is a Class C Felony so good thing for him he didn’t work here.

  3. Chuck:

    The Romans called it Damnatio Memoriae and it was the sanction against traitors of removing them from history. It was one of the most severe sanctions available and used against enemies of the state.

    To turn this on its head and remove heroes from history seems a crime commensurate with assault on them and their families and I would punish it accordingly.

    Good sleuthing on this one. I totally missed this story.

  4. Consider the HIPAA violation aspect. An accidental violation is $100 per incident, up to a maximum of $25,000 per year.

    A deliberate and willful violation is $50,000 per offense, up to a maximum fine of $1.5 million per year.

    Wellpoint recently settled a HIPAA violation for $1.7 million.

  5. Is that going to go in their permanent record?

    No, the idiots were not under charged for their sophomoric acts.

    How did slavish obedience to the records work out for the Romans?

  6. I’m not sure what the sentence for stupidity should be….this is all kind of mind boggling why someone entrusted with records such as these were not more severely handed out…. But there may have been more going on than we are aware of….. How did he get records out of the facility…..

  7. If there is any hope of repairing the records, or of restoring them, then those who did any damage should help in any repair or restoration efforts as part of probation or community service.

  8. I think they need to throw the book at Engram: I’ve used my veteran’s benefits quite a few times since I left the service. Without proof of my service, I would not have been eligible to educational benefits, or the two mortgages I’ve obtained in the past. Not to mention a variety of other uses for employment, health benefits, etc. the people who’s records are lost may now never be able to receive those benefits. How are those who lost records to Engram going to be able to access such benefits now?

  9. The additional crime here is the “bean counter” incentive concept employed. Turns out it was an incentive NOT to do the job correctly. Many examples of this short sighted concept abound (see No Child Left Behind) and yet it is not only accepted, but taught and promoted as effective. Sentencing issue is closing the barn door after…..

  10. Seems like it was not stupidity as much as greed and an absolute disregard and callousness for the potential impact on the pveterans/family

  11. This hits me on an emotional level since my father’s WWII records were destroyed in the 1973 fire. My siblings and I tried to retrieve the records after his death in an attempt to learn a little more about him. He never talked about his service. It was disheartening to get a letter stating the records didn’t exist anymore.

    “The audit showed that from Dec. 7, 2011 to March 28, 2012, more than 1,200 files were assigned to Halkmon. Of those twelve hundred files, 850 were missing.”

    If I’m doing the math correctly, that’s an assignment of only 15 files per day, assuming he worked five days per week. That’s a pretty light load. What was he doing all day and where was the supervision? I’d like to know if any supervisors were disciplined.

    “There were no extra copies of those records, either paper or digital.”

    This is appalling. Why is the military still treating records like its the nineteenth century? They can direct a drone to take out someone on the other side of the world but can’t figure out how to scan records?

  12. “There were no extra copies of those records, either paper or digital.”

    Here’s the root of the matter. Best not to trust human behavior to the sanctity of singular records. Trouble otherwise hears the invitation.

  13. this is exactly how they rewrote all history. the only issue is this time the people are aware of it.. without those records our descendants like us and our ancestors can and will be told whatever suits the fancy of the elite. and there will be no way to dispute their version. as there is now. we may not know the complete truth of our past history.. but many major lies and fabrications are out in the open and dispelled……

  14. The sentence seems harsh to me. It not like these guys engaged in fraudulent behavior that crashed the economy, and people that do get caught engaging in fraudulent behavior that crashes the economy don’t even have charges pressed against them. Why the disparity?

  15. Why is the military still treating records like the 19th Century? Because keeping track of those records is not as sexy and doesn’t look as good on TV as rolling out a brand new weapons system. Nobody got elected to Congress by campaigning on a stack of service records, because that’s not as telegenic as standing on a tank, and a records center doesn’t promise as many jobs as a new fighter.

Comments are closed.