Salon exclusive: Arlington Cemetery budget chief blew whistle in 2003

The 20-year vet told Army higher-ups of budget irregularities and questionable contracting, and got suspended

Topics: Arlington National Cemetery Investigation,

Salon exclusive: Arlington Cemetery budget chief blew whistle in 2003FILE - In this May 27, 2010 file photo, Army Spc. Matthew Burt, 25, of Titusville, Pa., with the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment known as "The Old Guard," places flags on the graves at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)(Credit: Jacquelyn Martin)

The former budget officer at Arlington National Cemetery warned the Army, the Defense Department’s inspector general, the Office of Special Counsel and the Office of Management and Budget about problems at the center of the scandal now unfolding at the cemetery. His concerns were mostly ignored and, at least in one case, smacked down by an Army official with oversight of Arlington.

The former budget officer, Rory Smith, tried repeatedly to blow the whistle on the cemetery’s budget irregularities, as top officials began to squander millions in taxpayer dollars, ostensibly to computerize burial records and prevent the interment mistakes documented by Salon over the last year. As a result of his attempts to communicate his concerns to Army higher-ups, Smith was reprimanded and suspended for insubordination. A 20-year cemetery staffer, Smith later joined a long roster of cemetery workers who quit in disgust or were fired after reporting problems to cemetery and Army officials.

Smith’s account is the most damning evidence to date showing that Army officials were repeatedly warned about budgetary, management and record-keeping problems at the cemetery. The Army, which oversees Arlington, has said it was kept in the dark about the problems there. Army Secretary John McHugh told the House Armed Services Committee recently that the cemetery was “somewhat of a satellite sitting off by itself.”

A Senate subcommittee is investigating Arlington and has requested that several of the major players in Smith’s story, revealed for the first time in this article, testify at a hearing set for July 29.

The budgetary high jinks and the burial scandal at Arlington are closely intertwined. If properly executed, the cemetery’s computerization effort would have eliminated the messy paperwork that is still used today to document the identities of deceased service members and their grave locations. The project was supposed to replace that flurry of paper with digital records and the capability to track grave locations precisely with the aid of satellites. That capability has been common at other cemeteries of similar size for years. Top cemetery officials funneled somewhere between $5 million and $20 million to a small group of contractors over the past decade to do the work, but got little or nothing in return.

As the budget officer at Arlington for two decades, Smith was the point man between the cemetery and the two government offices that oversee Arlington’s budget: the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works. Smith also worked closely with the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees that fund the cemetery.

In the spring of 2003, the cemetery had already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants just to study possible modernization plans without actually doing any modernization work, a situation Smith found troubling but possibly justified. At that point, cemetery superintendent Jack Metzler and his deputy, Thurman Higginbotham, were revving up to put the spending into high gear.

Metzler wanted the congressional appropriations subcommittees that funded the cemetery to give Arlington a budget “add-on,” an infusion of $5 million to jump-start the modernization effort. Smith was alarmed to learn that at the same time, Metzler and Higginbotham had also lobbied Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner from the Senate Armed Services Committee — a committee that does not normally fund the cemetery — to authorize an additional $5 million for the same work. This troubled Smith because Defense Department policy prohibited government workers from lobbying Congress for money outside of the president’s budget, and because the unorthodox involvement of multiple congressional committees would have blurred oversight over the modernization project.

Smith held lengthy negotiations with congressional staff and managed to keep the cemetery’s money flowing from the correct appropriations subcommittees. The cemetery received $2.7 million at that time for the automation work.

The cemetery next had to explain to the Army and the Office of Management and Budget how that $2.7 million would be spent to modernize cemetery operations. Smith was puzzled when over the coming months Higginbotham hired at least one outside consultant — a representative from a company that might later receive some of the money — to write up those explanations. Smith felt oddly cut out of the loop, since he usually prepared such documents.

When Smith reviewed the documents Higginbotham planned to submit for review, he found the description of the work and explanation of the costs remarkably vague. “When you work with Congress and the Office of Management and Budget, your credibility is everything,” Smith explained later about his consternation at the time. “I just got to a point where I could not look people in the eye and tell them, ‘This is where the money is going. This is what we are working on. This is who will do it, and this is when it will be done,’” he said.

In late 2003, Smith complained directly to Metzler that the explanation of the modernization work being developed by Higginbotham looked like a shell game. The cemetery, Smith argued, owed the Office of Management and Budget a much better explanation. “He usually deferred to me on these issues,” Smith said about Metzler. Not this time. Metzler ordered that Higginbotham’s plans be forwarded to the Office of Management and Budget.

In January 2004, Smith relayed his concerns to several officials at the Office of Management and Budget, including Bill McQuaid, a senior examiner responsible for some oversight of the cemetery’s budget. Smith argued that the cemetery’s explanation of how the funds would be used was dubious, at best.

McQuaid tried to get a handle on the cemetery’s plans and establish better accountability for the money. In late January 2004, McQuaid temporarily barred the cemetery from spending more money on contractors working on the computerization effort at Arlington. “We would like prior notification before any additional consulting or other outside work is commissioned on this project,” McQuaid wrote on Jan. 30 to Metzler, Higginbotham and Army officials.

Among other things, e-mails showed that McQuaid wondered why the cemetery wanted to reinvent the wheel and create a new computerization system from scratch, rather than build on grave-record computerization programs already developed by the Department of Veterans Affairs or the private sector.

The Army, which oversees the cemetery, was in the loop on all of this, according to e-mail traffic. The Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works helps oversee Arlington’s budget as well. Two civilian officials from that office, John Parez and Claudia Tornblom, appear in the e-mail chain. (Smith notes that he had previously relayed to Parez his concern about the accountability of the money, but was rebuffed.)

Notably, e-mails show that as Smith raised concerns, those same Army officials weighed in decidedly in favor of Metzler and Higginbotham’s automation plans and against Smith and McQuaid. Tornblom, the deputy assistant secretary of the Army in that civil works office, emphatically sided with Metzler, Higginbotham and the contractors at Arlington in an e-mail to McQuaid on April 22, 2004. “I have been shocked by the pejorative language you [McQuaid] have been using, at least in discussions with my staff, when discussing ANC [Arlington National Cemetery] automation efforts,” she wrote. “Please be aware that I will respond if I hear words like ‘disaster,’ ‘stunned,’ ‘throwing money at contractors,’ or ‘no product to show for it.’”

Tornblom suggested in that e-mail to McQuaid that Smith was motivated not by fiscal prudence but by a grudge he harbored against his bosses at the cemetery. “I believe you have been influenced inappropriately by one disgruntled ANC employee [Smith] who is trying to stir up controversy to retaliate against ANC managers with whom he has disagreements,” she wrote.

Salon could not reach Bill McQuaid for comment.

By 2004, Smith had worked at the cemetery for 20 years. After he became vocal about his concerns on Arlington’s funding, however, cemetery officials began a campaign of harassment against him, Smith says. He found himself being held responsible for a purchasing system outside his job purview. He was called insubordinate. Higginbotham took steps to suspend Smith for several days without pay.

Smith reluctantly took his whistle-blowing to a higher level. In April 2004, Smith tried to alert Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf about the problems at Arlington and the harassment. Wolf appealed to the Army and the cemetery on Smith’s behalf, but Wolf seemed satisfied with a later written explanation from Metzler that all was well at the cemetery. (Staff for Wolf explained that their boss receives hundreds of similar complaints and cannot investigate each one at great length.)

That same month, Smith, seeking help, dialed the Defense Department’s inspector general hot line. After an hourlong conversation with a member of the inspector general’s staff, Smith faxed a written complaint to the inspector general saying he faced “retaliation for the putting on hold or rejection by the Office of Management and Budget of ANC’s automation effort submitted by the deputy superintendent.”

Smith says he never heard again from the inspector general. “They never even called me back,” Smith said. “I just felt like they just totally left me hanging.” A Defense Department spokesman did not respond to questions about why the inspector general apparently failed to follow up on Smith’s complaint.

In July 2004, Smith sent a formal complaint to the Office of Special Counsel, the government agency responsible for protecting whistle-blowers. That complaint included a detailed chronology of the problems Smith encountered at Arlington and his concern about the “serious mismanagement” of money there. Smith warned that “public funds would be at significant risk to be put to waste and the integrity of the automation effort would be placed in jeopardy.” In late July 2004, the Office of Special Counsel alerted Smith that after “carefully reviewing” his complaint, the office claimed it lacked jurisdiction and considered the matter closed. That office also did not return a request for an explanation.

With respect to the retaliation, at least, Smith did get some help from his union, which was ultimately successful in overturning the cemetery’s suspension of Smith without pay.

With allies like Tornblom in the Army, the cemetery funneled millions over the years that followed to contractors hired to modernize cemetery records. In April 2005, in fact, Tornblom testified before a House subcommittee that the cemetery’s automation program was proceeding swimmingly. Tornblom said the automation would “reduce the risk of errors associated with the manual data access and maintenance,” she testified. “I would like to invite you, Mr. Chairman [New York Republican Rep. Jim Walsh], and members of the subcommittee and staff to visit the cemetery and observe a demonstration of the new automation capability,” Tornblom told the committee. “Mr. Metzler would be very happy to host you if you would have the time to actually see the improvements we are making at the cemetery.”

It is unclear what improvements Tornblom was referring to. The Army last month released an investigation into the Arlington scandal. While that probe does not mention the culpability of any Army officials, it admits that shocking burial mistakes continued because the modernization effort failed. “Although it is not known with certainty how much has been expended on [automation], evidence established that at least three contractors over a seven-year time period were awarded multiple contracts” to do the work. “Despite these expenditures,” the report says, “at the time of this investigation, ANC still prepares and maintains manual records.” The Army was able to track only $5.5 million spent on the project. Smith thinks the real number could easily top $20 million. He said that far more than $5 million was appropriated by Congress over the years to do the work, and he alleges that Higginbotham moved funds from other innocuous-sounding accounts to the project as well, making the real total that much more difficult to pinpoint.

Army officials declined to make Tornblom available for an interview. She is expected to appear before Congress this month, however. The Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight is set to conduct a hearing on the Arlington scandal on July 29, and Metzler, Higginbotham and Tornblom are among the witnesses invited to testify.

Smith was clearly on the outs with his bosses at the cemetery as far back as 2004, though he kept his job for a while. “I hung in there until 2007,” Smith said. Then he retired earlier than he had planned, because of what he says was continued harassment in a hostile work environment at Arlington.

He isn’t alone. The last two budget directors at Arlington, including Smith, left in disgust. The last two information technology managers also quit, extremely concerned about the validity of the cemetery’s modernization effort. Two of the last four cemetery spokeswomen quit in disgust. A third — Gina Gray — was fired in what she said was an act of retaliation for her own whistle-blowing. As they allegedly retaliated against Smith and Gray, cemetery officials relied on the advice and counsel of Army officials in another office, the Military District of Washington.

After her firing, Gray also appealed to the Defense Department’s inspector general, and in October 2008 the inspector general’s office initiated an investigation into its circumstances. The Pentagon released the resulting report on June 29, 2010, the night before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Arlington scandal. The inspector general found that Gray’s firing was not an act of retaliation.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Salon began to uncover the burial mistakes and related financial mischief at Arlington in a yearlong investigation that started a year ago.

Top Army officials continue to insist they did not know about the burial fiascos and related contracting and budgeting shenanigans that have mushroomed into a full-blown scandal at Arlington National Cemetery.

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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