In a picture taken by Arlington National Cemetery superintendent John Metzler in 2006, deputy superintendent Thurman Higginbotham is dressed in a Pittsburgh Steelers No. 78 jersey in support of his nephew, Steelers offensive lineman Max Starks, who was playing in the Super Bowl that week.

The man at the center of the Arlington scandal

Higginbotham could face criminal charges after funneling millions to contractors who failed to computerize records


Mark Benjamin
June 12, 2010 12:12AM (UTC)

NBC News reported Friday that the Army's ongoing investigation into massive problems at Arlington National Cemetery, first revealed by Salon almost a year ago, is focusing on the de facto boss of the cemetery, Deputy Superintendent Thurman Higginbotham. A senior defense department official told Jim Miklaszewski that Higginbotham could face possible criminal charges.

No one has confirmed exactly what the Army is investigating. But Higginbotham was in charge of the cemetery's botched attempt to computerize its burial records, which is at the heart of the scandal. Poor record-keeping is blamed for the cemetery's misidentifying or misplacing hundreds of graves, sending burial urns to landfill, and other tragic mishaps. Officials have known about record-keeping problems since at least 2004, and they have spent between $6 million and $15 million to computerize the system. Higginbotham has been in charge of the project for more than six years, but very little progress has been made.

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As Salon reported last September, interviews, internal cemetery e-mails and budget documents show that Higginbotham steered millions of dollars to a small cast of contractors operating under a succession of different company names, either though no-bid contracts or methods that tightly limited competition. Internal e-mails show Higginbotham appearing to exert complete control over the awarding of the contracts. The companies, however, produced almost nothing, and the cemetery still relies almost exclusively on pieces of paper to track operations, leading to mistakes like the kind uncovered by Salon.

The Army investigation released this week confirms that Higginbotham acted as a contracting officer and highlights two questionable payments of $200,000 and $800,000 to those contractors who produced little or nothing in return.

The report also amplifies concerns about lax handling of private information on service members and their families, another issue that was the focus of previous Salon articles. Salon reported that Higginbotham last summer mailed to a Florida contractor two computer servers full of personal data -- including Social Security numbers -- of thousands of deceased service members. He ordered them sent despite federal law that bars such unauthorized shipping, and despite the objections of the cemetery's IT manager, who warned of possible privacy law violations. The new Army report says that also last summer, Higginbotham sent a bogus memorandum to Army officials at Fort Belvoir falsely claiming Arlington had adequate protocols to safeguard sensitive private information. The report says Higginbotham, described by title but not name in the report, “knowingly signed a memorandum that contained false information, which demonstrated his failure to adhere to the Army value of exemplifying the highest ethical and professional standards.”

Questions about Higginbotham's failure to complete the computerization system, and other cemetery management problems, were also at the heart of a controversy that led to an Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) probe. In May 2009, CID concluded that Higginbotham made false statements to Army investigators as they examined what they later classified as wire fraud at Arlington — a female employee's computer had been tapped into without authorization, and she had been impersonated online. ("Based on information provided," according to the report, "it is possible Mr. Higginbotham routinely reviews employee's email when he deems necessary.")

But the heart of the dispute between Higginbotham and the employee in question, former Arlington public relations officer Gina Gray, were Higginbotham's concerns that Gray was blowing the whistle on the cemetery's management problems – or as the embattled deputy put it in an email, that she was part of a "conspiracy" against him. He fired Gray, allegedly for poor job performance, and then took steps to find out what she knew about troubles at the cemetery, and who she might be telling about it.

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One of his trusted contractors, Bobbie Garrett of Alpha Technology Group, which had been awarded funding for cemetery computerization, accessed Gray's computer without official Army authorization. "I was able to access Ms. Gray's computer," Garrett wrote in an email to Higginbotham and one of his subordinates. "I changed her domain account to be able to log in with the username and password. To login to this PC, use the following: Username: gina.gray. Password: PublicAffairs11**." Army agents also learned Higginbotham ordered Garrett to remove Gray's hard drive and send it out to a private company to mine for information. And someone impersonated Gray in an email to a former Arlington employee, after she had been terminated.

Army investigators declared Higginbotham "made false and misleading statements to agents from this office, regarding access to Ms. Gray's email account and government computer." The report said agents could not determine precisely who impersonated Gray online, but called the act "wire fraud." Higginbotham faced no official punishment or censure after the CID report.

Nor has there been any official action, until now, to determine why Higginbotham had steered millions in contracts to computerize cemetery records to the same group of people who produced such poor results. When CID found that Alpha Technology Group's Bobbie Garrett was involved in unauthorized tampering with Gina Gray's computer, Garrett left ATG. But Garrett quickly teamed up with ATG's CEO, Carleton Wells, to form a new technology firm, Optimum Technical Solutions, and Arlington awarded that firm almost $200,000 to work on the computerization project almost immediately. A month later, U.S. marshals arrested Garrett, on more than a dozen counts of child sex abuse in Charles County, Md.

Higginbotham's troubles have not been limited to his work at Arlington. He came out of Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings in 2002. In the case, a judge did not excuse Higginbotham for a debt associated with "a death or personal injury caused by the debtor's unlawful operation of a motor vehicle while intoxicated" in 1990.

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While NBC's Miklaszewski quoted an senior Defense official saying Higginbotham could face criminal charges in the case, another Defense official told the Associated Press on Thursday that criminal charges were unlikely, because of a lack of evidence.

 


Mark Benjamin

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

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