The case of the quick and the dead
Arlington Cemetery official retires amid probe of botched contracts, site problems
Arlington National Cemetery's deputy superintendent has retired before Army officials could compel him to meet with a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee investigating contracting irregularities, including more than $5 million paid to a series of minority-owned start-up companies that failed to produce a digitized system for cataloguing remains.
Thurman Higginbotham, the cemetery's longtime second-in-command, submitted paperwork last week to make his retirement retroactive to July 2, the week Army officials were notified that congressional staffers were seeking to interview him regarding dozens of botched contracts. He had worked at Arlington for more than 40 years and served as its deputy superintendent since 1990.
Army investigators found more than 100 unmarked graves, scores of grave sites with headstones not recorded on cemetery maps, and at least four burial urns that had been unearthed and dumped in an area with excess grave dirt. Investigators found that those and other blunders were the result of a "dysfunctional" and chaotic management system, poisoned by bitterness between Higginbotham and the cemetery's superintendent, John C. Metzler Jr.
The Army inspector general's report released June 10 said that the deputy superintendent was at the center of contracting irregularities. The report found that although Higginbotham had no training or authority as a government contracting officer, almost three dozen contracts listed him as the government contact monitoring performance on technology contracts to digitize records for the cemetery's 330,000 interred remains.
Most contracts lacked required government analysis to determine whether companies were charging "fair and reasonable" prices. And none included the most basic government language requiring that contractors be "trained, qualified and certified to maintain and protect" government computer systems, the inspector general found.
Under that loose system -- which the inspector general found was not inspected or audited for more than 10 years by officials up the Army's chain of command -- the price for contracted work sometimes doubled, and none of the contracts produced a usable system to replace the cemetery's centuries-old method of verifying interments using 3-by-5 cards and other paper records.