Army cites improper contracting in Arlington Cemetery scandal
Second-in-command at Arlington National Cemetery botched contracts to digitalize burial records, according to Army investigation
The Arlington National Cemetery scandal over more than 200 cases of improperly buried veterans and wrongly marked gravesites is largely the result of antiquated, paper-based recordkeeping stemming from mishandled information technology contracts, an Army investigation has found.
The cemetery, one of two run by the Army, had “no acquisition strategy, no integrated IT system and series of IT regulatory violations,” and the use of outside contractors has not been audited by outside officials for more than a decade, according to the Army investigation report.
The report centers on the cemetery’s deputy superintendent, Thurman Higginbotham – who is identified only by title in the report – and alleges that Higginbotham may have authorized as much as $5.5 million in contracts to digitize the cemetery’s records, without results.
Higginbotham is identified in the report “as the government point of contact for monitoring all IT contract performance,” despite having no training as a contract officer.
“Evidence established that at least three contractors over a seven-year time period were awarded multiple contracts to upgrade the original Intermittent Scheduling System and to digitize ANC’s burial records. None of these efforts, however, resulted in the implementation of any automated systems currently in place at ANC,” where records are still manually kept, the report said.
The Army originally took on the project of digitizing records in 2002, eight years after the Veterans Administration started automating its own burial records, and initially estimated the project to cost $4.8 million and conclude in 2016, the Army investigation said.
By contrast, the VA runs 131 cemeteries, all of which have digitized records and some of which allow visitors to look up burial information on a touch-screen computer, VA acting undersecretary Steve Muro told the Washington Post. At Arlington that information is kept on microfiche.
“We are one fire, or one flood, or one spilled Starbucks coffee away from some of those records being lost or spoiled,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said in a conference call with reporters on June 24.
The investigation report said the $5.5 million was spent on 35 different contracts with a handful of vendors, only one of which is explicitly named. Manassas-based Offise Solutions, was paid $800,000 to digitize files that were delivered to the cemetery on 60 CDs but were not the correct format, the report said. Offise Solutions, which prior to the Arlington Cemetery contract had never received a government contract, denied any wrongdoing to the Washington Post.
Also mentioned in the Army report was a company that received a sole-source contract for work pegged at $250,000, but doubled the cost in its proposal and was awarded the contract “without any evidence … that the vendor was capable of performing the effort, given the significant increase in cost.”
The report also said that in another case contractors drafted a fair-price analysis for work to be performed despite the fact that such activities are “reserved only for government officials” – the cemetery’s contracting officer “merely circled ‘concur’” in signing off on the agreement.
Despite Higginbotham’s “attempt to blame others for the lack of automation progress, evidence reflected that he failed to properly carry out his management and oversight responsibilities” for contracts related to digitizing cemetery records, “and that, because of this mismanagement, he failed to properly conserve government resources,” the report said.
The report also identified a wealth of workforce issues that it said contributed to the cemetery’s mismanagement, including bad blood between Higginbotham and his boss, superintendent John Metzler Jr., that permeated the workplace environment and created a low morale among personnel.
Higginbotham has been suspended, while Metzler has been stripped of his title and received a letter of reprimand, that letter will be removed from Metzler’s record when he retires on July 2.