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GAO: Management of Arlington Cemetery improving

Says removing Army oversight may not be wise

- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2011

Management of Arlington National Cemetery has improved significantly 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 after 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 manages 82 of the nation's 84 military cemeteries.

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

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

The report also finds 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 reports 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.

In response to the report, Ms. Condon wrote to the GAO to say the Defense Department agrees fully or partially 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, Missouri Democrat, who has closely monitored the Arlington reforms, 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."

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