- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 18, 2009

A former official at Arlington National Cemetery who said she was fired last year after clashing publicly with top cemetery officials has filed a lawsuit aiming to expose more chicanery and possible criminal activity involving those who run the nation’s most hallowed burial ground.

In once instance, according to Gina Gray’s lawsuit, an Army investigation found the cemetery’s deputy superintendent had lied to agents during a criminal probe related to her firing, but has never faced any consequences.

The lawsuit seeks the release of the final report and supporting documents from the Army Criminal Investigation Command’s probe into Ms. Gray’s allegations that someone had accessed her work e-mail account without her permission and a message was sent impersonating her.

The suit, filed Wednesday in federal court in the District, names the Army and Army Criminal Investigation Command as defendants. Both declined comment because the case is pending.

The lawsuit, brought under the Freedom of Information Act, seeks documents that have never been released. However, Ms. Gray’s lawyer, Mark Zaid, said he has seen portions of the investigative report and, as a result, knows the probe’s conclusions.

Mr. Zaid said he is seeking the public release of the report because he believes the Army “illegally withheld the report and I want to challenge their refusal to publicly acknowledge a senior official committed a crime.”

According to the lawsuit, which purportedly quotes from the Army investigative documents, the investigation concluded that an unknown person or people “committed the offense of Unauthorized Access to a U.S. Government Computer and wire fraud when they accessed Ms. Gray’s (Arlington National Cemetery) e-mail account and sent an e-mail reply from the account purporting to be from Ms. Gray.”

The lawsuit further states that the investigation concluded Thurman Higginbotham, the cemetery’s deputy superintendent, “committed the offense of false statements when … he made false and misleading statements to agents from this office regarding access to Ms. Gray’s e-mail account and government computer.”

The lawsuit claims Mr. Higginbotham, cemetery Superintendent John Metzler and Phyllis White, the cemetery’s director of administrative services, have operated the cemetery as “a fiefdom for its leadership, permeated by egotistical and self-serving attitudes.”

Attempts to reach Mr. Higginbotham, Mr. Metzler and Ms. White for comment through the cemetery’s public affairs office were referred to Army Criminal Investigation Command, which declined comment.

At least two members of Congress already have taken an interest in the lawsuit.

“We are aware of [Ms. Gray’s] lawsuit and, given Arlington National Cemetery’s unique significance to our nation, we are looking into allegations relating to conditions there,” said Kimberly Hunter, press secretary of Sen. Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat who is a member of the Senate committees on armed services and veterans’ affairs.

Lindsey Mask, communications director for Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican who is the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said, “The congressman is aware of the Arlington National Cemetery lawsuit and has asked staff to look into it and keep him apprised of the case.”

The trouble between Ms. Gray and the cemetery’s top brass - civilians working under the supervision of the Army - began last spring, just days after she began working in the cemetery’s public affairs office. Ms. Gray, an Army veteran, worked for 12 years in Army public affairs.

A Washington Post article from 2008 about restrictions on the media during military funerals at the cemetery reported that Ms. Gray’s efforts to push for more access to the media were “shot down by other cemetery officials.” According to the lawsuit, Mr. Higginbotham was one of those “officials.”

Mr. Zaid wrote in the lawsuit that: “It soon became clear that anyone who dared show any semblance of professionalism and independence - which in Ms. Gray’s situation meant following the job description for which she was hired - and demonstrated what was perceived to be a challenge to authority, though it was anything but, fell victim to derogatory, belittling and escalating punishment at the hands of White, Higginbotham and/or Metzler.”

A month after the article appeared, Ms. Gray filed a complaint claiming a hostile work environment with the Army’s Equal Opportunity Office. That case is ongoing, according to her lawyer.

She was fired from her job at the cemetery a month after filing the complaint. Ms. Gray, who now works as a military contractor, filed the criminal complaint with Army Criminal Investigation Command last October regarding the allegations of improper access to her e-mail account.

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