December 7, 1997

A fat-cat pal of President Clinton who never served in the military but gave $10 million to Democrats got special permission to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery , it was learned yesterday.

Big donor Larry Lawrence’s special waiver touched off a furor among veterans, including some in Congress who demanded that Clinton respond personally to the revelation – a challenge the president ignored.

Lawrence, who served in the Merchant Marine in World War II and died while serving as Clinton’s ambassador to Switzerland, was ineligible for burial at Arlington but got a special waiver from Army Secretary Togo West.

“This is sacred ground. For veterans, this is something you don’t tinker with. It’s the one place in the country that we’ve always been told your status has nothing to do with – or how much money you have, your family lineage, your color or your creed,” said Larry Rivers, chief officer of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “There are a lot of sailors whose ships were hit and who received Purple Hearts who they couldn’t fit at Arlington,” added Rivers, who noted that his Bronze Star serving as a Marine in Vietnam doesn’t qualify him for burial there. “The way you get in there is if you have served your country, and in many cases, paid the ultimate sacrifice.”

White House scandal spinner Lanny Davis angrily called the grave-gate allegations “scurrilous” and “beneath contempt,” claiming they were peddled by anti-Clinton Republicans who were loose with the facts. Davis said Lawrence deserved the plot because his Merchant Marine ship was hit during World War II, injuring Lawrence, who got a medal from the Russians.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a highly decorated veteran who spent six years as a hero prisoner of war in Vietnam, said there are questions about “many of these waivers,” including whether eligible veterans were bumped from Arlington to make room for fat cats. He called for a top-level Army investigation.

In 1994, the Clintons vacationed at the Lawrences’ $12 million mansion in Southern California, and the mega-wealthy Lawrences, who worked in Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, were among the fat cats who were overnight guests at the White House.

Three years ago, Clinton nominated Lawrence for ambassador to Switzerland – a move criticized by career diplomats who charged that Lawrence bought the cushy job with a $200,000 contribution to the Clinton campaign.

Now, House investigators are probing whether Clinton and West played favorites by granting special “waivers” so Lawrence and 61 others could be buried at Arlington without meeting the requirements. House investigators, who were at Arlington yesterday, said they are concentrating on 10 unusual cases in which West overruled the career cemetery superintendent, Jack Metzler. But in Lawrence’s case, Metzler recommended a waiver, and West signed off. West said he didn’t know anything about political contributions. An Army spokeswoman said Clinton didn’t pressure West on the Lawrence waiver – though the president was so close to Lawrence that he gave the eulogy at his funeral and presented the American flag to his widow. “The president wasn’t involved, not on this one,” said Army spokeswoman Kim Walz.

Eight months after her husband was buried, Shelia Lawrence, 36, played golf with Clinton in Coronado, Calif., where she lives. Around the same time, she pocketed $92 million by selling the oceanfront Hotel del Coronado near San Diego, which she and her husband owned.

The Merchant Marines are not part of the military, but Walz said a 1988 law allows Merchant Marines who served between the years 1941 and 1946 to be cremated and have their ashes stored at Arlington, where space is at a premium. Lawrence, who died in Switzerland at age 69, was buried in a sloped, wooded section of the cemetery in January 1996 near famous military vets like boxer Joe Louis, Apollo 14 Commander Stu Roosa and several congressmen. Among the 50 attending the private ceremony, aside from Clinton, were then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Navy Secretary John Dalton. When Clinton nominated Lawrence to be ambassador to Switzerland in 1994, he appointed his wife to be special U.S. representative to the World Conservative Union in Geneva.

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