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Arlington Cemetery Probe: Where Did $5 Million for Records System Go?

3 years ago
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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.

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12 Comments

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knute9

Call in the Performance Bonds. Or is that costly requirement for government contracts is only for those companies who are not politically connected.

August 01 2010 at 1:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Wally

Our goverment is not held accountable by its citizens. Only on election day !
Imagine, these people in Washington will soon control our Health Care and cannot even run a National Cementary ! It is scary !

July 31 2010 at 4:57 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
naupoto

This makes me sick to my stomach! As a QM officer and knowing Arlington cemetary falls within our jurisdiction; I have questions. What happened to the COR? Why did it take so dam long to find this out? I have an answer, it's all the red tape bullcrap we have to do to do anything in government! What happened to six sigma streamlining processes? At the company level commanders are charged with watching every dime spent and to see this dispictable behavior by high level leaders in positions that affect the rest of us is a double standard. Did you forget the 6th line of your Civilian Creed? Well, here it is. "I live the Army values of Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage." I have to fight to get funding for my Reserve Soldiers to be able to come in on orders but we can't account for $5 million. You have dishonored the men and women who died for our freedom at lowest level imagineable. LEAD BY EXAMPLE!

July 31 2010 at 11:53 AM Report abuse +12 rate up rate down Reply
aroselle

"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."

A netbook and Excel software could do this for about $500, plus man hours for data entry of about $20,000 = $20,500. Then quadruple this number for typical govt waste = $20,500 x 4 = $82,000.

Scum.

Troops: We the people value your sacrifices. Do not confuse us with this corrupt govt that controls us. Thank you.

July 30 2010 at 11:40 PM Report abuse +15 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to aroselle's comment
crabbychief

Maybe you shouldn't confuse it? Think about it...It wasn't the Government that was corrupt, it was private companies, run by private citizens...in other words, us. It's like you're fogetting that you're learning of this courtesy of the government, not the private company. Government workers show some ineptness at times, but it may be a stretch to call the entire government corrupt. Seriously, a little honesty from you guys, now and then, would be nice, if this place were the hell on earth that many of you purport it to be (Camden, NJ, and Pigeon Forge, TN being the exceptions, as they come fairly close) why aren't you stampeding towards the border? Answer, because it's not really that bad. If the government really controlled you, then why would it let you lie about it? Answer, because they don't really control you...last time I checked, our "government" wasn't some hidden, sentinent entity, some King or Queen...it's a bunch of people who live in your towns and villages, counties, parishes, and states...some are friends, some are relatives, and they take orders from the other friends, neighbors, and relatives, who we select to represent our needs and wants. So, if you vote...you're part of the Government...if you vote, you can try changing it every 2, 4, and 6 years

July 31 2010 at 1:05 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
tausands

Thank you crabbychief for your intelligent post. I only have one complaint. You left Indianapolis off your ist of exceptions.

July 31 2010 at 9:32 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
kthyfschr

im a vet father was in ww2 bother in vietnam 4 and a half years combat medvec other brother d storm its shameful what happened whos running things they shound be flogged out of their jobs what did we fight and die for,bleed for tell me my god.

July 30 2010 at 11:36 PM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply
naomipook

What Federal Program was this guy hired under? Robert E. Lee is my ancestor, and I thought that HIS beloved Arlington, given up as he went to fight the war, stood for something honorable, now is a national disgrace to us, and our war dead?

July 30 2010 at 10:40 PM Report abuse +14 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to naomipook's comment
BOB

Robert E Lees property (His wifes property) Was taken for back taxes in 1861. She only owed $90.00 and sent an agent over the bridge to pay the tax bill. Then the union US GOVERMENT refused nto take her money. They then took it from her and buried 261 Union soldiers up against her house. She was the grand daughter of Marth washington. Finally in 1888 her son sued, and the supreme court ruled that the goverment had indeed illgally taken the property. He was awarded 185,000 for the land.

July 31 2010 at 4:44 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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