Officials don't know what happened to more than $5 million that was supposed to buy a new technology system to automate burial records at Arlington National Cemetery.
The money is spent, but the nation's cemetery for military killed in combat, veterans and their families continues to keep burial records for fallen soldiers on paper. After Thursday's Senate committee hearing to review contract mismanagement at Arlington National Cemetery, senators still have few answers on how, where and when the money was spent.
"It is a disaster," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight. "We were throwing money at contractors and we actually have no product to show for it."
Former top officials at the cemetery, who retired in early July after they were blamed for mismarked graves, were called to testify before the subcommittee.
Thurman Higginbotham, retired deputy superintendent of Arlington who was in charge of the contracts, invoked his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself in testimony. Higginbotham was dismissed from the hearing soon after senators began questioning him about contracts because he declined to answer. But Higginbotham's marred personal financial history -- he declared bankruptcy 12 years ago -- raises questions as to why he had been given such breadth of financial control at Arlington.
Messages left for Higginbotham through his attorney, Robert Mance, were not returned. But in an interview after the hearing, Mance said: "When someone takes the Fifth Amendment it does not mean they did something wrong. There were just areas of the report we just didn't want to get into," Mance said, referring to a June 2010 report by the Army inspector general that pointed to mismanagement.
Between 2002 and 2009, $5.5 million to $8 million was spent on contracts to automate Arlington's paper-based operations, yet the cemetery still has no computer system to track graves and manage burials. Officials don't know the exact amount spent, who received the money or what contractors were being paid to do. Army Deputy Assistant Secretary Edward M. Harrington told senators Thursday he couldn't find records for more than half of the contracts that were issued. Other contractors had been paid -- in one case, more than $226,000 -- without delivering a service, according to the June report by the Army inspector general.
Allegations of "contracting gone wild," as McCaskill put it, surfaced after Salon.com published a story last year about Arlington's burial operations, prompting an Army investigation. It found problems with the cemetery's management and daily operations that have resulted in an estimated 4,900 to 6,600 unmarked or improperly marked graves. More than 330,000 are buried at Arlington. "We've got waste, we've got abuse and we've got fraud," McCaskill said. "We've got the trifecta."
Higginbotham filed for bankruptcy in 1998 with around $480,000 in debt, according to court documents. His financial problems began when he and his wife, Rose, built a house outside of Atlanta with plans to retire there, court documents show. Higginbotham owed more than $80,000 to the construction company. The house was foreclosed upon, and Higginbotham's retirement plans were postponed.
Army officials apparently would have known of the bankruptcy because Arlington was ordered in 2001 to deduct $208 of Higginbotham's monthly salary and send it to a trustee who was paying off Higginbotham's debt, according to court documents. His other debt included outstanding credit card charges, a $13,500 loan for a 1996 Ford Mustang and loans for properties in Virginia and Washington.
Public affairs officials at the cemetery and at the Army did not respond to multiple requests for information about the case.
In 2002, as he was emerging from bankruptcy, Higginbotham spearheaded the multimillion-dollar modernization of Arlington's records. In a 2006 interview with the tech publication Government Computer News, Higginbotham took credit for persuading lawmakers to support his plans and allocate millions for a new automation system, which he planned to roll out by 2009. Arlington has computerized 18 percent of its records, but has no system to manage cemetery burials, according to a memo released by the Senate committee.
Higginbotham doesn't have training in contracting or technology, but he was responsible for managing the new automation program, according to the Army investigation. The Army Contracting Center of Excellence and Army Corps of Engineers in Baltimore gave final approval for the contracts, but Higginbotham "was really operating as a contracting officer," McCaskill said. He made the contracting requests to Army officials, handpicked the contractors and made sure they were paid, McCaskill said.
Higginbotham was granted every contract request, including a $193,000 contract for a four-month trial of a new content-management system that was not approved and that no one at the cemetery other than Higginbotham even knew about, according to the Army investigation.
Former budget officer at Arlington, Rory Smith, had alerted Army officials to Higginbotham's contract spending, but his concerns were ignored, McCaskill said.
During the hearing, former cemetery Superintendent John C. Metzler took no responsibility for the contracts, saying he knew nothing about them and had assigned Higginbotham to make contracting decisions.
"I trusted him," Metzler told senators.
Higginbotham, 68, joined Arlington in 1965 as a security guard. He worked his way up to deputy superintendent in 1990, and filled in as interim superintendent until Metzler took the job in 1991. As deputy superintendent, Higginbotham was responsible for monitoring daily cash flow at Arlington, according to the Army's description of the job. He also had access to sensitive information and his position requires security clearance, which mandates background and credit checks, said Army spokesman Gary Tallman.
The Senate subcommittee concluded its hearings Thursday. The Army Criminal Investigations Command and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are investigating the contracts, and could pursue charges, McCaskill said.