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Army finds problems with IT contracts, records system at Arlington Cemetery

The records room at Arlington's visitors center, where most burial information is kept on microfiche.
The records room at Arlington's visitors center, where most burial information is kept on microfiche. (Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post)
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By Christian Davenport and Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 25, 2010

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.

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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.


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