Hearing elicits contrition, but few answers for Arlington Cemetery scandal

The former superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery told a Senate panel on Thursday that he took "full responsibility" for a growing scandal involving hundreds of misidentified burial records and millions in wasted contracting dollars to establish a still nonfunctional automated system to track the location of thousands of graves.

But, after the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight grilled witnesses for three hours, questions still remained about how problems with the cemetery's record-keeping and management -- first brought to light more than a decade ago -- persisted and went unaddressed for so long.

In June, the Army Inspector General released a pair of reports that found hundreds of mistakes associated with graves at the cemetery. In some cases, graves were found to be improperly marked or not identified at all. In other instances, cemetery maps showed graves as occupied when they were not. Occasionally, urns of cremated remains were found in the cemetery's landfill, the report said.

"I was the senior government official in charge and I accept full responsibility for all my actions and all of my team's actions," said John C. Metzler, who resigned as superintendent shortly after the IG's report was released. "And, I want to express my sincere regrets to any family for whom these failures may have caused pain."

He attributed many errors to inadequate funding, the cemetery's busy and unique ceremonial schedule, and a lack of information technology experts on staff. But, lawmakers and the IG pointed the finger squarely at Metzler, his longtime deputy, Thurman Higginbotham, and a defective and poorly managed contractor workforce.

"This is not complicated," said Subcommittee Chairwoman Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. "It's called keeping track of who you buried where."

Metzler argued the problems the IG identified were primarily administrative errors on internal maps that are used to locate graves, but that his office, through other retrieval methods, knows where every body is buried.

The subcommittee suggested, however, the problems were almost undoubtedly far more pervasive then previously indicated. In 2004, Arlington awarded a contract to conduct a pilot survey of 300 gravesites to verify that the cemetery's records were accurate. They were not. In one example, the contractor identified a grave where cemetery records stated the site was reserved for a future occupant. The gravesite, however, had been occupied for the previous four years.

If the same rate of error the contractor found exists throughout the cemetery, lawmakers suggested there could now be as many as 6,600 errors at Arlington. "This is like hearing there is no Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny," said Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., the subcommittee's ranking member.

Kathryn Condon, who was recently appointed to the new position of executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program, said she already has discovered other discrepancies on Arlington maps.

"ANC suffered from dysfunctional management, a lack of established policies and procedures, an unhealthy organizational climate; errors in the accountability of remains, as well as 211 burial map discrepancies," Condon said.

More than a decade ago, the Army began to develop a system that would track the 330,000 individuals who have been laid to rest at the cemetery, including service members from every major conflict and war. At first, Arlington officials attempted to use a modified version of the Veteran Affairs Department's burial system. VA's Burial Operations Support System cost $1.2 million and typically has worked without incident.

But, after two years of effort, Metzler claimed the system was not compatible with Arlington's technology and ANC officials attempted to build their own automated system. The Total Cemetery Management System was to include a records database, gravesite inventory, infrastructure upgrades, a project management system and a geographic information system, according to documents the committee provided.

But after nearly $10 million in sole-source contracts directed and overseen by Higginbotham -- who has no experience as a contracting official -- only 20 percent of the cemetery's records are now automated. For the most part, Arlington still operates off paper index cards. "This is gross mismanagement of sanctified ground," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

After answering some basic background questions, Higginbotham, who also was forced into retirement, pleaded the Fifth Amendment and at the advice of his attorney refused to answer questions about his role in the contracts. The Army's Criminal Investigative Service is reportedly investigating Higginbotham's conduct.

The Army is now reviewing Arlington's contracting records, which had not been inspected since 1997; they were supposed to be audited every two years. Edward Harrington, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for procurement, said the contracts Higginbotham managed lacked performance standards, deliverables, market competition or any evidence of an acquisition strategy.

The IG also found that contractors might have performed inherently governmental functions relating to the cemetery's IT contracts. "There was a general breakdown in sound business processes, and statutory, regulatory and policy requirements were not followed," Harrington said.

Lawmakers noted there was ample opportunity for Army leadership to identify the problems at Arlington, but warning signs were either missed, or in the case of information provided by a whistleblower, ignored.

Claudia Tornblom, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for management and budget, was responsible for the cemetery's budget for the past decade, but conceded she did not question contract spending.

In hindsight, Tornblom admitted she "didn't ask enough questions."

Despite the numerous contracting mistakes, a final version of the Total Cemetery Management System was nearly complete when the IG released its report, Metzler said. The system is on hold until Condon conducts a complete review. So far, the Army has reconciled 139 of the 211 discrepancies in the management system and plans to perform additional testing of gravesites using penetrating ground radar.

"We will provide our fallen heroes with the honors commensurate with their service," Condon said.

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