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Possibly mishandled Arlington graves in thousands

WASHINGTON - The estimate of possibly mishandled graves at Arlington National Cemetery soared into the thousands yesterday, and ousted cemetery officials conceded they knew about problems at least five years ago.

A Senate report released yesterday said 4,900 to 6,600 graves among the 330,000 veterans and others buried at Arlington may be unmarked, improperly marked or mislabeled on cemetery maps. An Army survey released in June of three of the cemetery's 70 sections revealed 211 mishandled graves. The Senate report reached the larger figure by projecting the error rate onto the entire cemetery.

Kathryn Condon, appointed as the first executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program after the scandal erupted in the online magazine Salon, said the Army still does not have a complete count of burial errors and she is "confident there are probably other map errors."

At a hearing of a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee, chairwoman Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) accused cemetery officials of "catastrophic incompetence." "Waste, abuse, fraud - we've got the trifecta, and we have it concerning a national treasure," she said.

Former cemetery superintendent John Metzler and deputy superintendent Thurman Higginbotham were subpoenaed to attend the hearing. Both retired this month.

Higginbotham answered basic questions but invoked his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination when asked about his role in cemetery contracts. "It was always conceptual that anything done by hand for 40-plus years, that there would have to be some errors somewhere," he said.

Metzler accepted responsibility for the scandal but said he grappled with budget cuts for years. The cemetery's federal employees fell from 145 to 95 over the last 19 years, he said.

"We were holding onto the basic function of burying the dead, and everything else was contracted out," he said.

With minimal oversight, cemetery officials awarded up to $8 million on contracts to digitize burial records, according to the subcommittee report, but most records are still catalogued on note cards.The Army report concluded many burial errors stemmed from the antiquated record-keeping.

Metzler initially said he did not know about the problems raised in the Army report before its release. But after McCaskill pressed him, he conceded he learned in 2005 two cremation urns had been emptied into a landfill and Army superiors were not directly notified.

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