Like many genealogists, historians and other researchers, Howard Harner was a regular visitor at the U.S. National Archives in downtown Washington, D.C. He spent hundreds of hours there from 1996 through 2002. However, he wasn't simply seeking information. He was stealing.
Harner was "researching" letters from military officers and government officials involved in directing both the Civil War and the westward expansion of the United States, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Among the documents that Harner stole were letters from famous historical figures such as Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Generals Lewis Armistead and George Pickett. When nobody was looking, he would slip the documents inside his clothing. National Archives officials now believe that he stole more than 100 historic papers.
Harner offered the documents for sale on eBay. He was caught when a Civil War researcher from Pennsylvania noticed a document he previously had viewed at the National Archives was being auctioned on eBay. The researcher notified government officials and eBay immediately pulled the document from its site. The FBI linked Harner to the document and ultimately to the theft of numerous other documents, according to prosecutors.
Harner is believed to have earned more than $47,000 from the sale of stolen documents. The 68-year-old Staunton, Va., man pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Washington to one count of stealing major art work.
The following is a statement by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States, on the sentencing of Howard Harner:
"Today in the Federal District Court, Judge James Robertson sentenced Howard Harner to two years in prison, two years probation, and a $10,000 fine. On March 7, 2005, Mr. Harner pleaded guilty to stealing more than 100 Civil War-era documents from the National Archives Building in Washington, DC over a six- year period from 1996- 2002. This sentence sends a very clear signal that theft of cultural property belonging to the American people will not be tolerated. We are very grateful that the Judge recognized the seriousness of the crime."
"While 42 of the documents stolen by Mr. Harner were recovered, the National Archives Inspector General and General Counsel will continue their search for the remaining 61. We ask manuscript dealers and collectors to cooperate with us so that all of the historical materials belonging to the National Archives are eventually returned."
"Thousands of researchers each year have access to our priceless documentary heritage, using original records at National Archives facilities across the nation. This allows American citizens to see for themselves the workings of the Federal government and the accountability of Federal officials. Mr. Harner abused that trust and has paid the price for that abuse."