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Army secretary orders broad changes in operation of Arlington National Cemetery

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; 6:40 PM

The secretary of the Army has ordered widespread changes to the way Arlington National Cemetery operates after a report found a "general breakdown in sound business practices" that included poor financial oversight, violation of contracting regulations and a lack of competition for lucrative contracts.

The report confirms the findings of a scathing review, released in June, of the cemetery by the Army's inspector general. It concluded that the cemetery spent millions of dollars to digitize the cemetery's paper burial records but got nothing in return and that more than 200 graves were unmarked or mislabeled.

The most recent report, conducted by Army procurement officials, found Thurman Higginbotham, the cemetery's former deputy superintendent, steered no-bid information technology contracts to "select vendors." Those contracts were then awarded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Capital Region Contracting Center without any market research or justification even though "other vendors could perform the work."

The contracts also did not clearly define the scope of work to be completed and did not identify any performance standards or outcomes.

At a Senate hearing last week, Higginbotham invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to answer questions about his role in approving millions of dollars' worth of botched contracts at the nation's most venerated burial ground.

"I can tell you there was nothing inappropriate about what Mr. Higginbotham did," his attorney, Robert W. Mance, said Thursday. "He did not have the final say-so on these contracts."

The procurement review also found that Higginbotham, who is identified only by title, purchased cameras, refrigerators, computer equipment and cellphone chargers "with limited or no supporting documentation."

The review also found problems at the Corps of Engineers and the contracting center, which awarded contracts on behalf of the cemetery. In one instance, Army investigators asked for 167 contracts to review, but the contracting center could produce only 80.

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