Thursday, October 6, 2011

Former NARA employee pleads guilty to theft

On Tuesday, Leslie Charles Waffen, a career U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) archivist who ultimately became head of its Motion Picture, Sounds and Video Recording Branch, pleaded guilty to stealing at least 955 NARA-held sound recordings worth approximately $30,000. Dozens of boxes of recordings were found were found when officials raided his home, but he sold others on eBay using the account name "hi-fi_gal."

The Baltimore Sun reports that the investigation into Waffen's criminal activities cost approximately $48,000. The sale that led investigators to swoop in -- a 1937 audio recording of baseball legend Babe Ruth -- netted him $34.74.

As an archivist who has lived through a major internal theft, I have immense sympathy for all of the NARA employees whose lives have been turned upside down as a result of Waffen's illicit activities, which came to light last October and will continue to affect NARA's operations for years to come. Internal theft leaves in its wake powerful feelings of outrage, betrayal, and humiliation, and it takes a long time for those emotions to become manageable. Some of my colleagues have said that it took about a year after my former co-worker's theft came to light for them to come to grips with our experience, and some of us (myself included) needed even more time. All of us will carry the experience with us throughout the remainder of our lives and our careers; if you look at the membership roster of the Society of American Archivists' Security Roundtable, you'll note the presence of a healthy contingent of New York State Archives employees.

Moreover, internal theft always prompts -- as it should -- changes in security procedures and protocols. It's not unusual to understand intellectually the need for these changes while at the same time resenting the ways in which they make it harder to do one's job. I'm a big proponent of improving security in archival repositories -- as evidenced by numerous past posts on this blog -- but every now and then I can't help but blame my thieving former co-worker for some minor security-related inconvenience.

I realize that the above statements may seem a bit gloomy, but I do want to say to any current or former NARA employee who reads this blog that things will get better. You and your employer will both come to terms with this experience, and you will eventually adjust to the "new normal," whatever it may be. It won't happen quickly or easily, but it will happen.

Leslie Charles Waffen will be sentenced on 5 March 2012. As noted in his plea agreement, he faces a maximum sentence of ten years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.

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