By Charlton Stanley, Weekend Contributor
The 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?