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Arlington's Gravegate Scandal Could Have Been Prevented

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Watching Washington for any significant length of time is bound to evoke feelings of deja vu. Not only do the political debates run in monotonous cycles, creating a sense of "haven't we done this before," but reports of federal malfeasance resurface with depressing regularity, showing how little really changes despite repeated calls for reform.

I had that deja vu feeling all over again this week, when reading the latest stories and commentary about the disgraceful situation at Arlington National Cemetery, some of the most hallowed ground under federal management. They eerily echo a piece I wrote back in 1998 -- more than a dozen years ago! -- for Insight Magazine, highlighting racial tensions and management problems at Arlington.

Really stunning is that the more recent revelations and critiques focus on cemetery Superintendent John Metzler, who has just been reprimanded and demoted over mixups involving graves. But Metzler was in charge at Arlington back in 1998, when I was blowing the whistle -- meaning that he's kept his job despite a long and documented history of management problems at the cemetery. And the problems predated my piece by years.

Here's a snippet of what I wrote back then:

Behind its tidy white rows of headstones, impeccably manicured spaces and outward tranquility, Arlington, or ANC, is the site of bureaucratic bickering, mismanagement, morale problems and racial tensions, according to Army inspector general "climate assessments" conducted last year. "The atmosphere of turmoil, distrust, mismanagement and poor employee morale has continued [from the early 1990s] to the present," according to a Freedom of Information Act-exempt summary of the reports. "There is an overwhelming sense of frustration among employees and the senior leadership at ANC.

Fairly or not, the memo lays much of the blame for ANC's morale and management malaise on the "autocratic management style" of cemetery superintendent John Metzler, and suggests that little improvement is expected during his tenure. "There is no indication that the superintendent will ever change," the memo states, "and employees have lost confidence in his leadership ability."

It was long ago known that Metzler was a major screw-up, who shouldn't have been entrusted with managing this sacred ground, much less with managing a McDonalds. Yet he somehow kept his job, up to the present day, and all he's receiving for years of "autocratic" incompetence is a slap on the wrist. Metzler will be allowed to retire with dignity on July 2. He should have been fired years ago.

A reprimand posted Friday chastises Metzler for his "dysfunctional relationship" with deputy Thurman Higginbotham, who gets some of the blame for grave-gate. But that dysfunctional relationship had been a problem for more than a decade. Higginbotham was on staff, and feuding with Metzler, back when I wrote about the cemetery:

"Group-sensing sessions" conducted at the cemetery last year found that a communication breakdown had occurred between ANC employees and management, and additional tensions exist between Metzler and his deputy, Thurman Higgenbotham. The (inspector general) bemoaned the lack of "team leadership," "sharing and consideration of others" and "unified direction" resulting from the rifts. The IG also found that the "dissension and discord" between the top two leaders "has a significant impact on the overall efficiency of the day-to-day operations of ANC."

This, recall, was back in the late 1990s.

What a depressing testimony to the entrenched incompetence at the federal level. What an insult to the heroes who are buried and honored at Arlington. What a black mark on the Pentagon for not cleaning up the situation more than a decade ago, when these problems first came to light. The scandal within the scandal is that some of the more recent disgraces might have been prevented, had the early warning signs not been ignored.