Senate panel grills former Arlington cemetery officials

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 29, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Two former top officials of Arlington National Cemetery faced hostile questioning on Capitol Hill Thursday about years of negligence that led to unmarked and mismarked graves and mishandled remains.

Thurman Higginbotham, a former deputy superintendent at Arlington, took the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer most of the lawmakers' questions.

His boss, former Superintendent John C. Metzler, accepted "responsibility for all my actions and for all of my team's actions," but he also appeared to cast blame on his staff as well.

Both men had been subpoenaed to appear at the hearing before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Operations panel.

They were pummeled with questions about a futile, 10-year, multimillion-dollar effort to digitize cemetery recordkeeping. The cemetery still uses index cards in most cases to identify graves.

"Improper actions and errors have wasted millions of dollars and delayed implementation of a functioning system by years," according to a Senate report released this week.

With the estimate of incorrectly marked graves now up to possibly 6,600, lawmakers showed little patience with the witnesses. This was particularly evident after Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, got both of them to acknowledge that they'd been aware of problems with graves as far back as 2003.

McCaskill, who led the hearing, chided Metzler for not sounding an alarm in 2005 after urns with unidentified cremated remains were found in a cemetery landfill.

"The notion that you come here and act like you didn't know about this until a month ago is offensive," she said. "You did know about it and you did nothing. You knew about it, Mr. Higginbotham, and you did nothing, and now somebody's going to come along and clean up this mess and families have been hurt for no good reason."

Both former officials were forced to resign last month after an Army Inspector General's investigation found that 211 graves had been improperly marked in just one small portion of the more than 600-acre cemetery.

Kathryn Condon, executive director of the Army's National Cemeteries Program, told the panel that in looking into the problem since the investigation, she's found "more discrepancies" with the graves at Arlington.

A report by the Senate panel found that the Army hasn't reviewed any contracts or performed any audits of Arlington in a decade.

Edward Harrington, a deputy assistant Army secretary, said that the Army's Criminal Investigation Division was looking into possible waste, fraud and abuse charges in connection with contracts related to recordkeeping improvements.

Established in 1864, Arlington contains more than 330,000 graves, including the remains of service members from every war the U.S. has fought.

Also buried in its rolling green lawns across the Potomac River from the capital are presidents, Supreme Court justices, explorers and others; from bandleader Glenn Miller to Mary Roberts Rinehart, a novelist known as the "America's Mistress of Mystery" and the nation's first woman war correspondent during World War I.

"Tragically, we know now . . . that gross mismanagement of these sanctified grounds has tarnished a sacred trust and shaken many military families," said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Collins and fellow Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts pressed Metzler about the cemetery's effort under his 19-year tenure as superintendent to computerize the recordkeeping.

Metzler said Arlington chose to build its own automated record system from scratch because its scheduling was too complex to mesh with a system that the Department of Veterans Affairs uses to operate its 131 national cemeteries.

"What went wrong from the beginning was we found that the IT (information technology) authorization process was full of difficult turns," he said.

The VA's system cost about $2.4 million. Arlington so far has spent between $5.5 million and $8 million on an uncompleted system, despite warning over the years from contractors and former cemetery employees.

McCaskill, a former Missouri state auditor, also pointed out that Army contracting officials "failed to conduct even the most basic oversight" on Arlington's finances. "They did not see red flags."

As to why the cemetery might have had difficulty finding a grave, Metzler offered a bewildering explanation about mislabeled color-coded maps as the reason, which seemed to only irritate the Senate panel further.

"We've got cell phones, we've got iPhones, and you guys are still dealing with (grave) cards," Brown said.

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