Senate panel takes up Arlington woes

Senators will hear testimony from Army officials next week in the ongoing controversy over the troubling mismanagement allegations at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Contract Oversight will address the findings of a months-long Army investigation that revealed a “dysfunctional” management system, flawed recordkeeping and more than 200 mismarked graves at the military burial site.

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Edward Harrington, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army (Procurement); Claudia Tornblom, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army (Management and Budget); and Kathryn Condon, Executive Director of the Army National Cemeteries Program are among those expected to testify.

Also requested at the hearing are John C. Metzler Jr., former superintendent at Arlington National Cemetery, and Thurman Higginbotham, the former deputy superintendent.

Metzler and Higginbotham were both implicated of wrongdoing in the Army’s report, but because both men recently announced their retirements it is unclear whether they will be compelled to testify.

Metzler was reprimanded following the report’s release, while Higginbotham was put on administrative leave pending a disciplinary review, which is ongoing.

The subcommittee wants Higginbotham to testify about his role overseeing contracts, in particular the technology contracts to digitize the cemetery’s burial records. Investigators said mistakes related to these contracts contributed to the improperly marked graves at the cemetery.

In a letter to Higginbotham requesting his appearance at the hearing, subcommittee Chairwoman Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said Higginbotham should be prepared to discuss the report’s findings that he “repeatedly authorized payment to contractors for IT contracts despite ‘grossly inadequate contractor progress to justify these expenditures.’ ”

McCaskill spokeswoman Maria Speiser said Higginbotham had not yet indicated how he would respond to the subcommittee’s request.

The report’s release in June prompted severe public outcry, extensive media coverage and the immediate scheduling of congressional hearings to address the issue.

Members of the House Armed Service Committee openly expressed their outrage at a hearing earlier this month to address the report’s findings.

“I’m just downright angry,” Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the committee chairman, said in his opening remarks.

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), ranking member on the committee, called the report’s findings “profoundly shocking and heartbreaking.”

In spite of the initial outcry over the Arlington report, sources indicate that lawmakers are in no rush to take legislative action.

Instead, members of Congress seem to have adopted a “wait and see” approach to allow the Army to confront the problems on its own.

“At this point, legislative action would be premature,” Skelton spokeswoman Jennifer Kohl said.

She said the committee continued to exercise “full oversight” of the Army’s efforts to correct the problems identified in the report, but would not hesitate to conduct further hearings if needed.

“This is an ongoing effort that will continue for a number of years,” Kohl said.

Brian Lawrence, a spokesman for Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said that while lawmakers have met with Army officials to discuss the situation at Arlington, these discussions are still in the preliminary stages.

“I don’t want to say it’s out of the spotlight,” Lawrence said. “We’re waiting to see if legislation is necessary.”

He said given the relatively full legislative agenda facing Congress, members are unlikely to address the Arlington situation before the August recess.

“I don’t see that happening,” Lawrence said. “We’re still in the assessment period right now.”

Speiser said the Senate subcommittee would wait until after Thursday’s hearing before deciding how best to proceed.

“We’re hopeful that the hearing will shed new light on how these contracting problems occurred and what factors led to the situation and then we will go from there,” Speiser said.

Though legislation to address the problems at Arlington is unlikely to materialize any time soon, some lawmakers have been working on the sidelines to address what is widely considered to be the cemetery’s most pressing issue shortfall — its woefully outdated record system.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) posted a YouTube video on his website last month following a briefing with Army officials. He said it was “appalling” that while the Army has spent $5.5 million since 2003 on a number of separate contracts to update and digitize Arlington’s gravesite records, cemetery officials are still relying on “hand-written 3x5 index cards.”

“That means we are one fire, flood or coffee-spill away from damaging or losing these irreplaceable records,” Warner said.

Warner said he has been working with members of the Northern Virginia Technology Council to provide a “short-term patch,” free of charge, that could immediately improve the cemetery’s record system while a more permanent solution is negotiated.

He said the issue of Arlington’s recordkeeping should be addressed as soon as possible, even as Congress determines whether further corrective action is needed.

Buyer has also been pushing Arlington to adopt a new electronic database.

“Our concern is whether the IT system has the backbone to support what it needs,” Buyer’s spokesman said.

Warner said a reliable record system was a necessary first step to restoring Arlington to its “hallowed ground status for all Americans.”

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