MADISON, Wis. (AP) – A maintenance supervisor at one of the most pristine veterans cemeteries in the country used the grounds as his private dump, burying everything from cans of paint thinner to television sets, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. The cost to clean up the mess is already twice what state officials first estimated and growing.
State Department of Administration officials say the company contracted to clean up the garbage has submitted $37,000 in bills, with more likely to come. That’s more than double the $18,000 the state Department of Veterans Affairs estimated the effort would cost. Meanwhile, veterans are seething that a state worker would disgrace a cemetery that federal officials have designated as a national shrine.
“Just totally repulsive to me and any veteran,” said Brad Cramlet, a 50-year-old U.S. Navy veteran from Pleasant Prairie, a city about 20 miles from the cemetery. “That is hallowed ground. Our veterans are buried there. To have that happen is just totally unconscionable. That’s abuse of position. That’s abuse of government. Abuse of power.”
The sprawling Southern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery stands on 105 acres outside Union Grove, about 30 miles south of Milwaukee. About 8,400 veterans and nearly 1,900 spouses have been laid to rest there. The cemetery earned an excellence in appearance award from the National Cemetery Administration in April.
The state DVA has released several news releases about the trash, including one last month saying the supervisor resigned in November and cleanup efforts had begun, but the statements offered few other specifics. DVA and state Department of Natural Resources emails and other documents the AP obtained through an open records request reveal more details.
The documents show a whistleblower approached the DNR with a tip that the supervisor was ordering his employees to dig holes and bury all manner of trash from his rental properties, including refrigerators, mattresses, furniture and chemicals.
“I am outraged that such a sacred place such as the final resting place for the men and women who served our great country are allowed to be disgraced in such a manor (sic),” the whistleblower wrote in an undated letter to DNR Warden Mike Hirschboeck. The tipster also wrote to then-U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold on Sept. 30 asking for help.
The DNR launched an investigation on Sept. 14, Hirschboeck said in an interview. The DVA launched its own probe in early October, agency emails show.
The supervisor, who the AP is not naming because he hasn’t been charged, resigned that November. According to a letter the DNR sent to then-DVA Secretary Ken Black in February, the supervisor and other cemetery employees told investigators the supervisor had employees dig holes to bury both cemetery waste and his personal property.
The cemetery property included rebar, damaged burners, tools, lawn mower blades and a 55-gallon drum, the letter said. The supervisor’s personal garbage included clothing, garden hose, pipes, television sets, aerosol cans, spray paint containers, screws, nails, insulation, turpentine cans, pesticide cans, paint thinner cans, furniture, carpeting, shingles and a mattress.
Scott Ferguson, a DNR spills coordinator in charge of cleanup, said in an interview he remembered seeing a washer-dryer and file cabinets as well.
The garbage was buried far from the nearest headstone, Ferguson said. He didn’t have any estimates on much trash was recovered, but the cleanup contract with Veolia Environmental Services called for a front-end loader, trucks and backhoes, suggesting the amount was considerable. The supervisor told the cemetery director he dumped trash on at least three occasions and probably more, according to DVA emails.
Cleanup began during the first week in August and was completed in a matter of days. The DNR is still waiting for tests on the garbage to see if any of the items qualify as hazardous materials, which could be a factor if the agency decides to bring any civil lawsuits or criminal charges.
The incident marks yet another public relations black eye for the veterans agency. It is still reeling from complaints that Black was trying to oust white workers. An audit earlier this year uncovered deficit spending and purchase violations at the agency’s two veterans’ homes. On top of that, agency secretary John Scocos alleged the DVA board improperly fired him from the post two years ago. Gov. Scott Walker reappointed Scocos to the position last week.
DVA spokeswoman Kathleen School said in a phone interview the $18,000 was a “range” and DVA didn’t know what it would cost until the project was completed. She declined to comment further. The cemetery’s director, Marian Lewandowski, referred questions back to Scholl.
Black said in a March letter to DVA Board member Peter Moran that agency leaders had met with cemetery staff to review proper disposal requirements and that an “effective communications plan” has been set up to give employees a way to report fraud and abuse to their supervisors.
Veterans Affairs Board Chairman Dan Naylor said he was disappointed and frustrated with the whole affair.
“The hope would be that steps would be taken to ensure this does not happen here or at other department sites in the future,” he said.
Alan Willis, department commander for Wisconsin AMVETS, said the former maintenance supervisor should at least be forced to reimburse the state.
“It’s a shame that it happened,” Willis said. “If we’re going to press charges on the individual, whatever comes of that would be deserving.”
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