Audit: Academy lost track of valuable relics

October 4, 2013 Updated: October 4, 2013 at 7:51 am
photo - Air Force Academy Communications Director David Cannon, who oversees the collection, said the inventory issues arose because of budget cuts and manpower issues. (The Gazette file)
Air Force Academy Communications Director David Cannon, who oversees the collection, said the inventory issues arose because of budget cuts and manpower issues. (The Gazette file) 

Air Force Academy officials are scrambling to document their hoard of historic items after a Pentagon audit revealed they haven't kept proper paperwork and went years without a proper inventory.

The Defense Department Inspector General's Office checked a sampling of 25 items from the Air Force Academy's collection of more than 5,000 things with historic significance. And all 25, which ranged from a B-52 bomber to a 17th-century blunderbuss, didn't have proper paperwork.

The Humiston Collection of prisoner of war artifacts was left with 25 of its 118 items missing, investigators found. A search for the items has been ordered. Of the 25 items surveyed, eight were properly cared for, the report found.

The Air Force has pledged to get its inventory fixed, but officials say it will take months.

"We understand the importance of preserving our Air Force heritage assets for current and future generations. There are approximately 5,000 historical assets at the Air Force's Academy," the academy said in a statement.

Air Force Academy Communications Director David Cannon, who oversees the collection, said the inventory issues arose because of budget cuts and manpower issues. The person in charge of keeping track of historic items retired, and the position went unfilled for more than a year because of a hiring freeze, he said.

The academy is also examining ways to improve the way it cares for historic items after the investigation found the school lacked proper facilities. Investigators found paintings stacked in a basement storage room, planes gathering rust and a century-old Japanese lantern left out in the rain as a decoration on the superintendent's patio.

"Part of that is a lack of funding," Cannon explained.

The two-year-long investigation into the academy is part of a congressional mandate that ordered a Pentagon probe of how service academies deal with donations.

A 2011 investigation at the Naval Academy found that millions in donations had been wasted.

On the financial side, the Air Force Academy fared better. The Pentagon found that the academy properly handled gifts and spent gift money appropriately. The school did get chided for not meeting Pentagon standards for donations to its athletic program.

The academy has addressed the issue by forming a nonprofit that can solicit gifts and manage outside money for athletics.

Most of the report, released this week, related to the academy's historic collections.

"Heritage assets are subject to misplacement, deterioration, destruction, and theft," the report found.

Cannon and other officials were cited for a "lack of oversight."

The academy lacks a museum, so its historic items are spread through buildings across its 18,500-acre campus, Cannon said.

Investigators found that the academy doesn't have records on where some of its most precious items are located.

"Another example of a problem identified with the location of heritage assets, was during the inventory, the former museum specialist pointed out an original Norman Rockwell painting that was not part of our sample," investigators said in their report. "A similar original Norman Rockwell painting is valued over $6 million."

How did officials lose track of a $6 million painting?

Investigators found that the academy hadn't completed a full inventory of historic items in years.

The school got waivers from having to perform required inventories in 2007 and 2009. Officials did complete a "wall-to-wall" inventory in April, the report found.

Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, who took command as the academy's superintendent in August, responded to the investigation with four-page letter ordering changes at the school.

She ordered a review of the program for historic items, management changes, an updated inventory and, in one case, "appropriate management action including holding the appropriate officials accountable."

Meanwhile, a search has been ordered for the missing items in the prisoner of war collection. Officials are checking to see if any of the 25 missing items wound up at the Air Force Museum in Ohio.

Lee Humiston, a Maine collector and museum operator who loaned the Vietnam-era items to the academy is steamed.

"It's a mish mash of stuff POWs gave to me," Humiston said.

The items included uniforms and items prisoners brought out when they were released from captivity. They were once displayed in the academy's cadet library.

Humiston wasn't told that some of the items are now missing.

Humiston has been fighting to get the items back from the Air Force for more than a decade.

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