By Christian Davenport and Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 25, 2010; A01
Arlington National Cemetery officials with limited expertise in federal contracting regulations and scant outside supervision improperly paid millions of dollars to companies that failed to create a digital database of the cemetery's records.
As a result, the nation's most hallowed military cemetery uses a flawed and antiquated paper system for tracking the whereabouts of thousands of buried service members and their relatives. Although the cemetery has spent $5.5 million over seven years to upgrade its records, problems abound, according to an Army inspector general investigation and other Army documents.
One contract was so flawed that a handwritten note attached to a legal review of it said, "This is probably not the best way to do business," according to the Army's investigation, which was released this month. But the note said that the "contract is not illegal."
The Army's report found that the cemetery had "no acquisition strategy, no integrated IT system and a series of IT regulatory violations." And the cemetery's use of outside contractors had not been reviewed by outside Army officials for more than 10 years.
Many of the problems in the IG's report focus on the cemetery's No. 2 administrator, Thurman Higginbotham. Despite having no training as a contracting officer, he was identified "as the government point of contact for monitoring all IT contract performance." The report identified Higginbotham only by title. Calls to him Thursday were not returned.
The cemetery is the final resting place of two presidents, 11 Supreme Court justices and service members from every war and major conflict in U.S. history. It is a national shrine regarded as a pinnacle of precision, from the perfect lines of white headstones to the silent cadence of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
"On the surface, [the cemetery] appears to be a very effective organization," Army investigators wrote. But its reputation as a national treasure "obscures many problems."
Among them: Dozens of burial plots appear on maps as occupied but have no headstone, and some graves that have a headstone are recorded as vacant. Cemetery workers have begun to dig graves in what they thought was an unoccupied plot but then found that someone was buried there.
In some cases, grounds crews have found that graves are marked with headstones for other decedents. Some burial sites have been planted over with trees.
As a result of its investigation, the Army has reprimanded Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr., who is retiring July 2, and Higginbotham, who was placed on administrative leave pending a disciplinary review. A phone message left Thursday evening for Metzler was not returned.
Arlington officials could not reach Metzler or Higginbotham.
Most national cemeteries are run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Army runs two: Arlington and the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery in the District. In 2002, eight years after the VA started automating its burial records, officials at Arlington launched their own program. They initially projected that it would cost $4.8 million through 2016, according to the Army's investigation.
Instead, the cemetery spent $5.5 million on 35 different contracts with "a few vendors," but it has little to show for it. The Army has ordered an audit of contracts during the past five years.
In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) called it an "astonishing" waste of taxpayer money on a project that "should be able to be solved relatively easily."
The VA, which manages 131 cemeteries with 3 million gravesites (Arlington has 330,000), started digitizing all new interments in 1994, said Steve Muro, the agency's acting undersecretary for memorial affairs. In 2003, it started digitizing its older records, which date to 1862. That project took five years and cost $1.5 million.
At many cemeteries run by the VA, visitors can look up burial information on a touch-screen computer. At Arlington, that information is primarily on microfiche. "We are one fire, or one flood, or one spilled Starbucks coffee away from some of those records being lost or spoiled," Warner said.
Six of the early IT contracts at Arlington were awarded to a then-newly formed Manassas company called Offise Solutions, the only company mentioned by name in the report. Between March 2004 and June 2005, the business, which had never previously won a government contract, was paid more than $700,000 by the cemetery, according to federal contracting records.
The company delivered approximately 60 CDs of scanned burial files, according to the Army's report. But "these records were not delivered in a standardized format and were not stored as part of a database," the report says.
Richard J. Greaux, the founder of Offise Solutions, according to state records, said the company fulfilled all of its obligations.
"Everything that we were contracted for, we delivered. We did everything that we were supposed to. You got the wrong company," Greaux said when reached Thursday by phone. "You're looking for other companies."
The company that obtained the most lucrative contracts for IT work was Alpha Technology Group of Waldorf. The cemetery paid the company roughly $2.5 million between 2004 and 2007, according to federal records. Calls to the company Thursday were not returned.
The Army report also mentions a company that received a sole-source contract for work estimated at $250,000. The contractor's proposal came in at more than double that figure, but the contract was awarded "without any evidence . . . that the vendor was capable of performing the effort, given the significant increase in cost."
The report does not identify the contractor or describe the work to be performed. Gary Tallman, an Army spokesman, would not elaborate, saying that the "report has to stand on its own."
In another case, contractors drafted a fair-price analysis for work to be performed, a duty that is supposed to be "reserved only for government officials," according to the Army report. The cemetery's contracting officer "merely circled 'concur' " to indicate the cemetery's decision.
The Army's Criminal Investigation Division conducted a recent investigation of allegations of conflict of interest between Arlington personnel and a civilian contractor. Investigators referred their findings to the U.S. attorney's office but, said Christopher Grey, a CID spokesman, it "declined to pursue criminal prosecution based on the lack of substantial credible information."
Staff researchers Meg Smith and Julie Tate and staff writer Michael E. Ruane contributed to this report.