Thursday, May 3, 2012

"I lost archival perspective and made wrong choices"

Earlier today, Leslie Waffen, the former head of the Sound and Video Branch of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), was sentenced to eighteen months in prison and two years of post-prison probation and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.  His crime?  Stealing the materials for which he was supposed to care and selling them on eBay.  In an odd twist of fate, the chain of events that culminated in his arrest and prosecution began when an item he put up for sale -- a 1937 recording of Babe Ruth -- was spotted by J. David Goldin, who had given the recording to NARA.

At his sentencing, Waffen tearfully apologized for his misdeeds, noting that he had "lost archival perspective and made wrong choices" and that he had "violated, personally, the archivist's code of ethics." His statement isn't accessible via Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER), but judging from various media reports, Waffen's criminal career began when he began taking recordings that were being considered for inclusion in NARA's holdings to his house so that he could work at home.  At some point, his passion for collecting old sound recordings overrode his professional and moral judgment.  Eventually, he apparently decided that selling the stolen recordings on eBay was a good idea.

Every archival security expert I've ever met has emphasized that collectors of and dealers in historical materials deserve special scrutiny. Waffen, who most assuredly got off easy, exemplifies why we need to be mindful of the fact that expertise and passion -- which are, by and large, wonderful things -- can lead some people horribly astray.

 I didn't have a PACER account at the time Waffen entered his guilty plea, but I've got one now.  For your reference, here's a copy of Waffen's October 2011 guilty plea, which states that he could have been imprisoned for ten years and fined up to $250,000 but broadly hints that he would likely receive an eighteen-month sentence, and a copy of the supplementary statement of facts that accompanied the plea. 
Waffen Plea 2011-10 Waffen Supplement 2012-10

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