GAO: Improvements under way at Arlington Cemetery

AP News
Posted: Dec 15, 2011 4:39 PM
GAO: Improvements under way at Arlington Cemetery

Management of Arlington National Cemetery has improved significantly in the last year since the cemetery's top two officials were forced out amid reports of misidentified graves, and it may no longer make sense to strip the Army of its management of the cemetery, according to a government report released Thursday.

The Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, issued two reports detailing the reforms that have been put in place by the new leadership team of Executive Director Kathryn Condon and Superintendent Patrick Hallinan. The two took over following allegations of widespread mismanagement under the previous executives, Superintendent John Metzler and deputy Thurman Higginbotham.

The GAO was specifically asked to evaluate whether Congress should remove the cemetery from Army management and hand it over to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which already manages 82 of the nation's 84 military cemeteries.

While the GAO concluded a transfer could be feasible, the report stated that "given the improvements the Army has made and continues to make at Arlington, it may be premature to transfer jurisdiction." The GAO noted that the Army has found ways to collaborate and share ideas with the VA, and recommended increased collaboration in the future.

Still, the report found issues needing attention. It noted that cemetery staff has increased from 102 to 142, following recommendations that staffing at the cemetery should be at 159. But the cemetery now estimates it needs 201 employees to carry out its duties. The report recommended a formal analysis of the cemetery's manpower needs.

The report also found fault with some of the fact-checking methodology the cemetery has used to ensure worried families that their loved ones have indeed been properly buried. In the wake of the heavily publicized reports of misplaced graves, the cemetery established a hotline that families could call. The GAO reported that the cemetery fielded about 1,200 calls seeking verification that burials occurred properly.

The cemetery determined that everything was in order in nearly 98 percent of those cases. But GAO double-checked 60 of those reviews and in a few of those cases found problems or potential problems had been overlooked. In one case, for instance, the cemetery's review overlooked the fact that a headstone had a wrong middle initial.

The GAO issued a separate report reviewing management of $35 million in contracts awarded related to Arlington, 60 percent of which cover groundskeeping and custodial duties. The report made a variety of procedural recommendations.

In response to the report, Condon wrote a letter to the GAO saying the Defense Department either agrees or partially agrees with all of GAO's specific recommendations.

The cemetery responded to the report Thursday with a statement: "Arlington National Cemetery continues to make progress in all aspects of the cemetery's performance, accountability and modernization. We welcome the U.S. Government Accountability Office's recommendations as we continue to improve and enhance our organization."

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who has closely monitored the reforms at Arlington, said the "reports show reassuring progress, which is the result of aggressive new oversight. The reports highlight some areas for improvement that I hope Arlington management will take seriously. It's clear that we still have more work to do, and I intend to remain vigilant until I'm confident these failures have been fully addressed."

Another progress report mandated by Congress is due next week. An interim report the cemetery provided to McCaskill last month found that no further problems had been uncovered related to knowing who is buried where, but did find tens of thousands of potential discrepancies between cemetery paperwork and headstones that may need to be resolved. For instance, a name may be spelled one way on the cemetery's internal paperwork but differently on a headstone.

Arlington National Cemetery contains the remains of more than 330,000 individuals, including two U.S. presidents. It conducts an average of 27 funerals a day and draws more than 4 million visitors a year.