House Panel Vows To Tighten Arlington Criteria

Washington Post, 29 January 1998

A House Veterans Affairs subcommittee yesterday promised to tighten the criteria for burial at Arlington National Cemetery, saying that the politically well-connected have an advantage when the White House and the Army grant exceptions to current rules.

Such waivers “have been one of Washington's dirty little secrets,” said Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), chairman of the oversight subcommittee.

“In some cases there undoubtedly has been favoritism, overwhelming pressure, political influence, string pulling and arm twisting, as well as public relations considerations, even if no one will admit it,” Everett said.

The subcommittee has led an investigation into how and why the Clinton administration granted a waiver for Democratic campaign donor and Ambassador M. Larry Lawrence, who died at age 69 in 1996 at his diplomatic residence in Switzerland. Last month, while the controversy raged and evidence showed Lawrence had fabricated his World War II Merchant Marine service, his family had his body removed from the cemetery, the nation's most hallowed military burial ground.

The controversy over Lawrence's burial grew out of heated exchanges between the White House and conservatives last month over allegations that Clinton had rewarded campaign contributors with plots at Arlington. But yesterday's hearing provided no examples that political donations played a role in burial decisions.

“We found no evidence in the records we reviewed to support recent media reports that political contributions have played a role in waiver decisions,” General Accounting Office assistant comptroller general Richard L. Hembra said.

Hembra acknowledged, though, that the GAO review was “quite limited,” involving only Army records and no examination of Federal Election Commission files or other campaign records.

Despite his criticism of the waiver process, Everett added, “Other than the Lawrence case, we have not found any situations of outright misrepresentation, fraud or illegality, none at all, regarding any person buried there.”

As they have in the past, administration officials stressed that most waivers went to members of families where a veteran was already buried at Arlington.

But Everett sharply questioned a series of officials and promised to continue his investigation into burial procedures.

In particular, he pointed out that the White House had not provided a witness for the hearing who could explain why President Clinton has granted waivers, including an exception for C. Everett Koop, the Reagan administration surgeon general.

Clinton informed the Army in August 1994 that Koop had been granted an exemption from the rules, a promise virtually never made to a living person, officials said. GAO's Hembra said Army files show Koop's waiver was handled by the office of the White House chief of staff, the White House counsel and the office of the first lady.

Koop was traveling yesterday and unavailable for comment, an aide said.

At the White House, spokesman Barry Toiv said that “like previous surgeons general buried at Arlington,” Koop “has served his country extraordinarily well at the Public Health Service, and the president believes he has earned this honor.”

Many veterans outraged by the Lawrence burial link the waiver issue to the cemetery's shrinking space. Officials expect Arlington, which has room for 263,639 grave sites, to be full by 2025.

Hembra said “no written criteria exist” for determining when a waiver should be granted and agreed with questioners that suggested the waiver process could be influenced by high-level officials and members of Congress.

Without a formal policy, Hembra said, “Individuals inquiring about burial at Arlington are not necessarily provided the same information — or any information at all — regarding the possibility of obtaining a waiver.”

Rep. Bob Stump (R-Ariz.), the House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman, said he would introduce legislation to tighten eligibility rules and clarify the waiver process.

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