The Justice Department’s investigation significantly escalates the level of scrutiny faced by the cemetery, and the probe joins several ongoing inquiries by Congress, which last year passed a law mandating that the cemetery verify that remains are properly accounted for at every one of its 330,000 graves. The law also requires the Government Accountability Office to look into the cemetery’s contract management procedures, and whether the Army-run cemetery should be turned over to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees 131 national cemeteries.
At a news conference at the cemetery Wednesday afternoon, Chris Grey, a spokesman for the Criminal Investigation Command, said that in addition to contracting fraud, investigators are looking into whether some grave sites were reserved against Army regulations. He also said the investigation is focused on a mass grave, discovered in October, that held eight sets of cremated remains.
In a report released last June, the Army inspector general found widespread problems at the cemetery: a dysfunctional management system, millions wasted on information technology contracts that produced useless results, misplaced and misidentified remains, and at least four cases in which crematory urns had been dug up and dumped in a dirt pile.
As a result, the cemetery’s top officials — Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. and Deputy Superintendent Thurman Higginbotham — were forced out, though they remained eligible for full retirement benefits. The cemetery has been under new management for a year, but officials have continued to discover burial problems, including the mass grave.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for Neil H. MacBride, the U.S. attorney in Alexandria, declined to comment on the probe, as did an FBI spokeswoman. No charges are imminent, according to people familiar with the investigation, and it is unclear whether any will be filed.
Investigators are said to be seeking information about who knew about the cemetery’s burial problems and whether fraud or falsification of records was involved.
The Army inspector general’s report found that cemetery officials with virtually no contracting experience and little supervision improperly paid companies in a failed attempt to digitize the cemetery’s paper records. As a result, the cemetery for years used an antiquated paper record system that it is only now beginning to upgrade to computers.