Clinton Says Aides Not at Fault in Arlington Burial of Envoy Who Was Donor

By Stephen Barr and Terry M. Neal Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 6, 1997

President Clinton yesterday held blameless administration officials who believed the late ambassador M. Larry Lawrence had served in the U.S. Merchant Marine in World War II, as Lawrence had long claimed, and thus qualified for burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

“Were the people involved in the decision in any way at fault?” Clinton said. “I don't think they were. They acted on the facts as they knew them.”

House Republican investigators said Thursday that a search of military records had turned up no sign that Lawrence, a major Democratic donor, served aboard a liberty ship sunk by a German torpedo in March 1945. Clinton, at an event on Medicare reform, called the questions about Lawrence's military service “serious” and said he has asked the State Department to investigate.

The prospect that Lawrence did not serve in the war as he claimed but passed through the White House, State Department and Senate confirmation process without notice also called into question the standards used for background checks on political appointees.

Administration officials said Lawrence listed Merchant Marine service on the government form used to apply for a security clearance, but when State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security investigators tried to verify the information, they could not find any records.

“As the information was 50 years old and did not have bearing on his suitability to serve as U.S. ambassador, it wasn't pursued further at that time,” State Department spokesman James Foley said.

Investigators noted in Lawrence's file that they had not been able to verify his military service, said Andrew Laine, spokesman for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

Confidential security files are closely held, making it unlikely that the notation was seen by former assistant secretary of state Richard C. Holbrooke and assistant secretary of state Patrick F. Kennedy in 1996 when the State Department asked Army Secretary Togo D. West Jr., on behalf of the Lawrence family, for a waiver so that the ambassador could be buried at Arlington. Lawrence died while serving as ambassador to Switzerland.

Lawrence's widow, Sheila Davis Lawrence, yesterday tried to refute the allegations of an ex-Lawrence employee who said she believed he concocted the story.

Norma Nicholls, who had worked for Lawrence from 1979 to 1993, claimed Thursday that he went to her in the early 1980s and asked her to help research information about Merchant Marine ships in the Western Pacific during World War II.

She said she put him in touch with an organization affiliated with the Merchant Marine. He contacted the group and it sent him information, she said.

Yesterday, John Gibbons, a spokesman for Lawrence's widow, pointed reporters to the 1977-1978 edition of “Who's Who in American Politics,” which includes a biographical sketch of Lawrence.

The sketch said Lawrence served in the “Maritime Service” from 1944 to 1945. That, Gibbons said, contradicts Nicholls's assertion that Lawrence concocted the story with her unknowing assistance in the 1980s.

“Obviously, what Norma is saying is not true,” Gibbons said.

Nicholls could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Other questions about Lawrence's stated background have also begun to surface. Thursday night, ABC's “Nightline” questioned whether he graduated from the University of Arizona and played football there, as he said.

School officials said yesterday that “Maurice Lawrence” enrolled in the fall of 1945. Maurice was Lawrence's first name. They said they would not be able to access records to determine whether he graduated until Monday.

An official in the university's athletic department said documents show “Maurice L. Lawrence” lettered as a football player in 1945.

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