Why did Arlington National Cemetery rehire Bobbie Garrett?

Garrett was investigated for fraud while working as a contractor for the cemetery. Why did he get his job back?

Published August 10, 2009 10:17AM (EDT)

An honor guard stands at attention at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Monday, 25, 2009, as the motorcade of President Barack Obama drives past on Memorial Day.
An honor guard stands at attention at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Monday, 25, 2009, as the motorcade of President Barack Obama drives past on Memorial Day.

Arlington National Cemetery has rehired a private contractor who was involved in a recent wire fraud scandal at the cemetery. Bobbie Garrett was employed by a computer company working on a multimillion-dollar project at the cemetery when he and cemetery deputy superintendent Thurman Higginbotham were caught hacking into the computer files of a former cemetery employee. After Garrett left the company and the Washington area, eluding Army investigators, he started a new computer firm in Florida -- and the cemetery granted this new firm a six-figure contract.

For nearly a decade, Higginbotham, the de facto boss of the cemetery, has managed a contractor-run effort to computerize burial operations at Arlington, which holds the remains of more than 300,000 service personnel and their family members. Other cemeteries years ago computerized operations and started keeping track of grave locations via satellite. Despite nearly 10 years of effort, however, Arlington still tries to keep up with 30 burials a day using a blizzard of paper grave cards and burial records along with more than 100 paper maps.

As Salon recently reported, problems with the paper records mean some headstones might not match the graves beneath. Salon detailed one example where workers went to bury someone in what they thought was an open grave, only to find unidentified remains already there. Current and former employees claim these problems occur with disturbing frequency. The Army recently launched an investigation into the cemetery following the reports in Salon.

For several years now, much of the money to computerize burial records went to Alpha Technology Group, a government contractor with offices in Waldorf, Md., and Newalla, Okla. Cemetery workers say, and internal e-mails show, that the company was a personal favorite of Higginbotham, who worked closely with an Alpha employee, Bobbie Garrett, on the effort to digitize Arlington's burial records.

But Higginbotham and Garrett also shared a role in a recent cemetery scandal. In May, the Army's Criminal Investigation Command (CID) cited both men in a seven-months-long investigation that found Higginbotham and Garrett hacked into a former employee's government computer without authorization from the Army, which oversees the cemetery.

The Army probe completed in May found wire fraud after Garrett hacked into the employee's government computer and then someone impersonated her online. Investigators from CID also cited Higginbotham for making "false statements" to investigators in that case. Investigators were able to determine that Garrett had hacked into the woman's computer on Higginbotham's behalf and found e-mails from Higginbotham containing information from that computer, but were unable to prove conclusively that either of the men was the person who had sent out e-mails using the former employee's account and pretending to be her.

Garrett resigned from Alpha Technology Group soon after the Army probe began in October 2008. When Army investigators sought to interview him, the company said Garrett was visiting his sick mother in Ohio. Investigators were unable to find him or interview him. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia declined to prosecute. Alpha Technology Group has not returned an e-mail or phone call from Salon.

As the Army investigation was winding down this spring, however, Garrett and the former chief operations officer at Alpha Technology Group, Carlton Wells, launched a new company. In March, Garrett and Wells incorporated Optimum Technical Solutions in Jacksonville, Fla. Corporate records list Wells as the president and Garrett as the vice-president.

The cemetery confirmed that in June, Arlington hired Optimum Technical Solutions to do work on the computerization of records -- the same work Alpha Technologies had done. Optimum Technical Solutions apparently has a four-month, $193,000 contract. Carlton Wells answered a call placed to Optimum's phone number in Florida, but declined to talk with Salon, calling his work for the government "a private matter." Garrett also failed to respond to Salon's request for an interview.

Thurman Higginbotham declined Salon's request for an interview. But Arlington's insistence on using Bobbie Garrett's company is odd, since Optimum Technical Solutions is a small, two-person operation with no track record, the kind of firm unlikely to win a government contract. It is also odd because other more established companies probably would have the job done by now.

In 2004, Arlington hired another company, Roanoke, Va.-based Interactive Design Group, to perform a pilot project and computerize the records on a subset of 300 graves in the cemetery. It was a success. "We did 300 graves and showed that the system would work," recalled the company president, Bill Hume. "Our pilot project was relatively cheap and fast," he said. "It would give you walking directions to a grave site." Hume said the whole cemetery could have been easily done by now.

But when it came time to do the whole cemetery back in 2004, the contract went elsewhere. "It came to my attention that a company called ATG was hired to do some work," he recalled, remembering Garrett's old company, Alpha Technology Group. Hume remembered that ATG had no experience with that kind of a project. "But they got the contract," he remembered.

The decision to hire Garrett again by granting a contract to Optimum Technology Solutions shocked some cemetery employees who describe the failed, years-long effort to track graves via satellite as a boondoggle. "It's ridiculous," said a former IT manager at Arlington who resigned last month in protest. "They've been throwing good money after bad."

The IT manager, who asked that his name not be used because it might interfere with a job search, said the rehiring of Garrett made him so suspicious of favoritism and perhaps other contracting irregularities that he sent a letter to Brig. Gen. Karl Horst, the commanding general of the Army's Military District of Washington, which oversees the cemetery. The July 17 letter warned of "unethical contracts preference for IT subcontractors and poor management and oversight of the Information Technology operations of Arlington National Cemetery," among other things. "Mr. Higginbotham has entered into a contractual obligation that I have serious concerns as circumventing US Army channels for approved contracting practices," the manager wrote. "My concern lies in the fact that the supposed contractor operating under the name of Optimum Technology Solutions … is operated by a terminated (Alpha Technology Group) subcontractor employee."

A spokesman for Horst would not discuss whether the ongoing Army investigation at Arlington on the heels of the Salon articles currently includes a probe of possible contracting irregularities. "I can only tell you that we take these kinds of allegations very seriously," said Col. Dan Baggio. "But as a matter of general policy, we do not discuss matters pending investigation." 

By Mark Benjamin

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

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Arlington National Cemetery Investigation