Panel to probe cemetery admissions procedure


When the burial waiver petition for M. Larry Lawrence reached the secretary of the Army's desk, the deceased's family had collected an impressive array of written endorsements, including one from President Clinton. But most survivors trying to get a loved one inside the exclusive grounds of Arlington National Cemetery don't have such high-powered friends.

Of the hundreds of exemption requests filed each year, the Army approves a dozen or so. The House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations is now looking into why some unqualified people win waivers, while most others are turned away.

Chairman Terry Everett, Alabama Republican, suspects favoritism. “The veil of secrecy that wraps up this whole process has to be lifted,” Mr. Everett said in an interview. “Anybody who applies for a waiver, the name should be made public and also the reason the waiver is granted.” It was Mr. Everett who last week disclosed that Mr. Lawrence, a big Democratic campaign donor and backer of Mr. Clinton's, likely fabricated a story that he served in the World War II merchant marines and was wounded. That “record” helped the family win an Arlington burial waiver in January 1996.

His widow, Shelia Lawrence, announced Monday she would have the body of the former ambassador to Switzerland disinterred and buried in California. But her decision won't stop Mr. Everett from inquiring deeper into the Lawrence matter, or from asking the Army to supply more information on 69 waivers granted since Mr. Clinton took office. The congressman said he wants to know why the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security failed to follow up in 1993 when its ambassadorial background check found no evidence Mr. Lawrence was a merchant marine sailor. “Either somebody did not do their job or favoritism is the only other answer,” Mr. Everett said. “We want to find out which of those took place.”

The bureau is now reinvestigating Mr. Lawrence's war years. Its findings are due within two weeks, a department spokesman said. Mr. Everett said the White House itself spurred him to double check Mr. Lawrence's claim. After conservatives charged the administration with awarding Arlington burial plots to campaign donors, the White House unleashed a counterattack and vigorously defended Mr. Lawrence. Mr. Everett grew suspicious.

Since the San Diego developer wasn't one of nine cases in which Army Secretary Togo West overrode the cemetery superintendent, he hadn't plan to focus on him. “The personal attacks from the White House were so vindictive it made me suspicious as to why, if we weren't even looking at the Lawrence matter, we were attacked?” he said.

An Arlington waiver application follows a four-step bureaucratic path. The superintendent, John C. Metzler, makes the initial recommendation, then forwards the papers to the assistant Army secretary for manpower and reserve affairs. That person gives an opinion, as does the Army's general counsel office. The Army secretary then makes the final ruling. There are no hard and fast rules. Historically, ambassadors have won exemptions, as have longtime public servants. “The secretary of the Army can use his own discretion too,” said Kim Walz, spokesman for the military district of Washington. “There are always unusual cases.”

In 1944, the same year Mr. Lawrence claims he entered the merchant marine, he was classified “4F” by a draft board, indicating he had some physical impairment, according to Lewis Brodsky, spokesman for the Selective Service. In the “employer” box, Mr. Lawrence listed Northpark College, an indication he was a student. Mr. Brodsky said the classification was later changed to 1A (a candidate for immediate active duty). But a month later his status returned to 4F. A classification for a merchant marine seaman would normally be an occupational deferment in the 2A series, Mr. Brodsky said. In 1951, during the Korean War, his grouping changed from 4F to 3A, a registrar with dependents.

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