Arlington Cemetery problems were documented in 2005 but never fixed

By Aaron C. Davis and Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 28, 2010; B01

Arlington National Cemetery officials knew more than five years ago that many burials did not match Arlington's maps and paper records, according to documents released Tuesday by a Senate subcommittee investigating millions of dollars in botched contracts overseen by the Army.

The Senate documents reveal that a contractor hired to test the accuracy of Arlington records told cemetery officials about the errors in 2005, but they were not corrected. The Senate investigators also found that Arlington officials spent millions more than the Army has previously acknowledged in the failed effort to digitize its records and did not tell Office of Management and Budget officials about a report that recommended it use an existing, cheaper system rather than attempt to build its own.

The documents paint a picture of Arlington officials who selectively shared information with superiors about problems at the cemetery. The documents also conclude that Army officials up the chain of command did not exercise "even the most basic oversight" when continued spending on the same blunders raised obvious questions.

The findings set the stage for a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing on Thursday that follow revelations that hundreds of graves at Arlington have been left unmarked or mismarked, and that some burial urns were dumped in an area with excess grave dirt. On Monday, The Washington Post reported problems with an additional 130 graves, including one section where the cemetery's map shows the burial sites of 70 freed slaves where a walkway and a drainage ditch exist.

On Tuesday, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chair of the Contracting Oversight subcommittee, announced that she and ranking Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts had decided to subpoena John C. Metzler Jr., 62, and Thurman Higginbotham, 68, the cemetery's longtime superintendent and second in command, who both were allowed to retire this month.

"This problem has been festering for so long. It is the kind of environment where we know waste occurs," McCaskill said. "The question is, was there fraud?"

Prior subcommittee invitations asked that the two be prepared to discuss findings from an earlier investigation that "you repeatedly authorized payment to contractors for IT contracts despite 'grossly inadequate contractor progress to justify these expenditures.' "

The committee report released Tuesday also criticizes others with supervisory responsibility for Arlington. For instance, the reports says Claudia Tornblom, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, did not fulfill her responsibility to oversee the cemetery's budget and spending.

She and Edward M. Harrington, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for procurement, have been invited to testify. Through an Army spokesman, both declined to comment Tuesday.

In an interview with The Post last month, Harrington, who oversees $132 billion in spending, said that cuts to his department have made it more difficult to follow the money flowing in and out of the Army's budget.

"As the contracting dollars have gone up, the government's contracting workforce has gone down," he said. "That left us with a relatively minimal staff of senior contracting experts."

The Senate staff report also says that in one instance in 2008, Maj. Gen. Richard Rowe, commander of the Military District of Washington, which has shared oversight responsibility for Arlington, "ignored reports of management problems."

Rowe is deployed in Iraq, and an Army spokesman said Tuesday that he was unreachable for comment.

The report also says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Baltimore District approved a technology contract for Arlington that it did not have the expertise to oversee. But the subcommittee report puts the responsibility for that error on Higginbotham, who the report says shopped around for approval for the contract and persuaded the Army Corps to award it on an emergency basis.

The report finds that from 2003 to the present, as much as $8 million has been spent by Arlington officials on questionable technology contracts in the name of digitizing its interment records. That's up from the $5.5 million the Army inspector general's office estimated last month.

By comparison, the Department of Veterans Affairs, which manages 131 cemeteries with 3 million graves, started digitizing all new interments in 1994. In 2003, it launched a five-year project to digitize its older records, which date to 1862. That project cost $1.5 million.

Arlington officials told Congress and the Office of Management and Budget that the VA's system couldn't be adapted to suit Arlington's needs. But Senate investigators found that Arlington officials failed to mention an Air Force study that found that the cemetery could make the VA system work at Arlington. In fact, Arlington Cemetery had been using a modified version of the VA's system, known as the Burial Operations Support System, for scheduling burials and ordering headstones.

VA officials even "offered to work with cemetery officials to make the necessary changes," according to the Senate report.

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