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Audit: Federal workers' records mishandled 4,000 times at Mo. facility

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — National Personnel Records Center workers here dumped, stashed or otherwise destroyed 4,000 records of individual federal employees, the head of the National Archives revealed in a memo this week.

The magnitude of the loss — more than twice what was previously disclosed — is described in an internal memo obtained Thursday by the Post-Dispatch.

In it, Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero summarized a recent investigation by the agency’s Office of Inspector General and the FBI, saying he was “outraged” to learn records “had been treated with such disregard.”

It appears that some workers took easy shortcuts rather than investing the time to file documents properly.

And another agency document suggests the problem may not be new.

A July 30, 2012, letter from the Office of Inspector General said that as the old records center facility in Overland was being decommissioned in 2011, employees found documents hidden in pillars and stuffed in the space between the floors and the lowest shelves.

Roughly 4,000 documents were found at that time, including military discharge paperwork, medical documents, Distinguished Service Medal orders and other files, it said.

The letter also warned that there is space to stash files below the shelves in the new facility.

It was not clear Thursday how much overlap might exist between the 4,000 documents cited in the 2012 letter and the 4,000 referred to in Ferriero’s memo.

No one from the center, off Interstate 270 in the Spanish Lake area, or the National Archives has responded to questions about the full extent of the record loss since the Post-Dispatch first reported in late January that more than 1,800 records had been affected.

The records were not entire files, but individual documents that were supposed to be filed in “existing service folders that had been retired ... years ago,” Ferriero wrote. Many were computer-generated notifications of the deaths of long-retired veterans.

The center holds about 100 million records dating to the 1800s, more than half of them of veterans.

No veterans have been denied benefits, Ferriero wrote, and some records can be reconstructed. But 132 people were notified that their “personal data was breached,” the memo says, and were offered credit monitoring services.

U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan said this month that an audit found only one veteran who had been affected, and that document was re-created.

Ferriero’s memo also says new security procedures have been implemented. Employees and visitors are being searched as they leave the center, and a new auditing program has been rolled out.

The investigation began on July 3, 2012, when “a concerned citizen” notified the agency that a series of records had been found in the woods near Alton, Ferriero wrote.

Those records triggered an audit and led investigators to employee Stanley Engram, who would later admit destroying or deliberately mishandling more than 1,000 records — disposing of 241 in the woods, “abandoning” others in the building and throwing away others at home, according to federal criminal court files.

The 2012 letter faulted the records center audit, however, saying some employees had not been audited and one employee who had been audited was later found to have mishandled records.

Five employees, including Engram, were later identified as having failed to properly handle records, Ferriero’s memo says. Four resigned rather than face “removal,” he said, and the other was removed.

Engram and Lonnie Halkmon, 28, each pleaded guilty last year to a misdemeanor charge of destruction of government records. Each faced a sentence ranging from probation to six months behind bars under federal sentencing guidelines, and each received two years of probation and 40 hours of community service.

The audit found that of the more than 1,200 records assigned to Halkmon to be filed, 850 were missing.

Court documents in a related unemployment case filed by Halkmon say some employees were “stashing” documents to finish quickly and earn a bonus. Some of those documents may never be found among the vast holdings.

Another, unnamed, employee’s case was handled under a pretrial diversion program, a form of probation.

The U.S. attorney’s office declined to prosecute the two other employees, Ferriero wrote.

Callahan told the Post-Dispatch in January that the others had filing error rates that were not sufficient for charges.

“These were students,” he said at the time. “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.”

Callahan faulted management and oversight at the facility.

Halkmon and Engram both began working at the center through a student temporary employment program. In a December 2012 report, the Office of Inspector General faulted the verification process used to ensure that student workers were still enrolled in school.
 

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