Ex-Arlington Cemetery official mostly mum at hearing

By Christian Davenport and Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010; B01

Invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, former Arlington National Cemetery deputy superintendent Thurman Higginbotham refused Thursday to answer U.S. senators' questions about his role in approving millions of dollars' worth of botched contracts at the nation's most venerated burial ground.

At a heated Senate subcommittee hearing into findings of dysfunctional management, misplaced remains and contracting problems at Arlington, Higginbotham answered only the most basic questions about his 20 years as the No. 2 man at the cemetery. An Army inspector general's report released last month identified him as the "point of contact for monitoring all IT [information technology] contract performance" despite having no training as a contracting officer.

Army investigators have conducted at least three probes into the cemetery, including one that was closed in recent days, but none has resulted in criminal charges. A spokesman said Thursday that investigators are working closely with the Army officials whom Army Secretary John McHugh has ordered to review the cemetery's finances.

The 2 1/2 -hour hearing, a lively Washington ritual, was full of indignant senators demanding answers from defensive bureaucrats, and it ratcheted up pressure to comprehend the cemetery's problems and correct them. But the subcommittee's chairman, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), conceded that in the end perhaps no one, beyond the two cemetery officials who were allowed to retire this month, will be held responsible for what she called a "long scenario of catastrophic incompetence."

"No one took full ownership, and if you don't have full ownership, then you can't take full blame," McCaskill said. "Because there wasn't one person's head who was going to roll, nobody's heads will. It's the old finger-pointing."

Speaking publicly for the first time about the scandal, former superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. said it was "painful for me that our team at Arlington did not perform all aspects of its mission to the high standard required."

But he played down the problems, blaming a lack of resources and staff members who he said failed to maintain maps that accurately reflected where people were buried. "As I'm sitting here, I feel very confident that the remains are where they are supposed to be," Metzler said.

But senators strongly chided Metzler and Higginbotham, both of whom had been subpoenaed to testify, for failing to alert their chain of command to the burial problems and for tarnishing a "national treasure."

Senators said they feared that the number of unmarked or mislabeled graves could run as high as 6,600, a cemetery-wide estimate based on what investigators found in a three-section survey last month. They also blasted two Army officials for failing to provide more rigorous oversight of Arlington's spending.

One of those officials, Edward M. Harrington, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for procurement, shocked the Senate panel by saying that he could not find half of the more than 30 information technology contracts requested by the committee.

"We've got waste," McCaskill said. "We've got abuse. We've got fraud. The whole trifecta."

Army Criminal Investigation Division spokesman Christopher Grey said his unit found that a cemetery employee's e-mail account had been illegally accessed, but investigators could not determine by whom. Investigators also looked into allegations of a conflict of interest between Arlington personnel and a civilian contractor. A third probe, involving a contract with the cemetery, was closed after investigators concluded that the allegations were unfounded. Grey would not elaborate on the allegations.

Several times during the hearing, senators pushed for specifics about how the problems arose and when Metzler and Higginbotham learned about them. The answers were so confusing that at one point Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass) told Metzler, "I'd have a lot of fun with you in a deposition, because I don't think we're getting straight talk here."

Initially, Metzler testified that he was unaware of burial problems until the Army inspector general released a report in June that found 211 mislabeled or unmarked graves.

Later, Metzler said he learned five years ago that cemetery officials had unearthed two urns during a construction project and could not match the remains with graves or names. Officials decided to rebury them marked as "unknown," he said.

At another point, Metzler said he knew a year ago about a coffin that Army documents indicate was found in 2003 in a grave marked empty.

According to a 2007 report to Congress obtained by The Washington Post, Arlington officials were aware of systemic errors. "In rare cases, the grounds crews have opened an unmarked, presumably available grave only to find that it has already been used," the report states. "More frequently, grounds crews will find that selected gravesites are marked with headstones of other decedents, or that the gravesite has been planted over with trees."

Clearly frustrated, McCaskill waved her finger at Metzler and said: "This is not complicated. It's called keeping track of who you bury where. . . . The notion that you would come in here and act like you didn't know about it until a month ago is offensive. You did know about it. And you did nothing. And you knew about it, Mr. Higginbotham, and you did nothing."

Before resigning, effective July 3, Higginbotham was placed on administrative leave, pending disciplinary review, after Army investigators found more than 100 unmarked graves, scores of grave sites with headstones not recorded on cemetery maps, and at least four burial urns that had been unearthed and dumped in an area with excess grave dirt.

Metzler was reprimanded last month but was allowed to retire with full pension benefits. It was not clear whether Higginbotham is eligible for retirement benefits. He worked at Arlington for more than 40 years and had been deputy superintendent since 1990.

Claudia Thornblom, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for management and budget, told the panel that she didn't suspect problems with the IT contracts. She said that Higginbotham "spoke knowledgeably about the program" but that she had no idea whether he "had the technical expertise or certification that should have been in place."

"Obviously, we didn't ask enough questions," she said.

Staff writer Michael E. Ruane contributed to this report.

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