Major Clinton Donor Is Focus of Cemetery Inquiry Probe – House panel wants to know if special treatment allowed M. Larry Lawrence to be buried in Arlington.

M. Larry Lawrence, the late owner of San Diego's Hotel Del Coronado and a major donor to President Clinton, is a focus of a House panel's investigation into whether the administration rewarded contributors with burial plots in Arlington National Cemetery, congressional officials said Thursday.

As the allegations of special waivers inflamed veterans' groups, members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee said they want to know whether the former ambassador received better treatment than veterans who often are not permitted to be buried in the U.S. military's most sacred–but increasingly overcrowded–cemetery.

Lawrence, a multimillionaire Democrat who gave $200,000 to Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, was not qualified for burial in Arlington solely on the basis of his merchant marine service during World War II, a committee official said. “The question is: Is this fair?” said the official. But administration officials staunchly defended the waiver for Lawrence, who, like his wife, Sheila, was a personal friend of Clinton's. They asserted that Lawrence was entitled to the waiver of the usual criteria because he died abroad in 1996 while serving as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and because he was wounded when his merchant ship was sunk by a German torpedo near Murmansk, Russia. Other ambassadors without service qualifications have been given waivers for burial at Arlington, the officials said. In Lawrence's case, “there was only the fact of tremendous service to the country,” said Army Secretary Togo West Jr., who approved the waiver.

The Army, which administers the cemetery, and the White House have been on the defensive for two days amid allegations that the sharp rise in special waivers for burial–62 since Clinton took office–reflects the administration's desire to reward campaign contributors.  Records show that 53 waivers were granted during President Reagan's eight years in office and 33 during President Bush's single term. Clinton administration officials contend that they have dealt with a higher volume of waiver requests because of the aging of the World War II generation. The Army's guidelines generally entitle burial plots at Arlington to service members who have died on active duty and to holders of higher decorations. Some family members, former prisoners of war and disabled veterans also qualify. However, all veterans are entitled to have their ashes stored in above-ground columbaria at the 200-acre cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington. There are no formal guidelines for waivers, which seek to take into account the service of the deceased.

The accusations are sure to fuel claims that Clinton and his aides routinely sought to reward campaign donors with the perquisites of government. The administration has been buffeted by such allegations since questions first surfaced more than a year ago about the propriety of some fund-raising efforts by the White House and the Democratic National Committee during the 1996 campaign. Also, West could be hurt by the furor. He has been considered Clinton's likely nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, but Republican lawmakers said Thursday that the controversy could make it impossible for him to win Senate confirmation.

Since the allegations involving burial at Arlington surfaced in a story in the conservative Insight magazine, Lawrence's is the first name to be publicly disclosed. None appeared in the magazine, which is printed by the company that publishes the Washington Times. And the administration has declined to release others, citing a desire to avoid casting a stigma on those who have received special consideration. The names have been provided, however, to the congressional panel.

Administration officials have blasted the story as a “scurrilous and untrue” hatchet job devised by Clinton's enemies. White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry berated the story on Thursday as a classic example of irresponsible journalism that has “no basis in fact” but has been “picked up on the hate-radio circuit and inflamed.”

Some senators also have approached the allegations with caution. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War and a former prisoner of war, called for a swift investigation but said that the administration is owed “the presumption of innocence until all the facts are known.” And he said his “initial impression” was that Lawrence was entitled to the burial because of his service.

But veterans' groups remained on the offensive. “The 2.9 million men and women I represent are horrified and outraged at the possibility that the report may be true,” said American Legion National Commander Anthony G. Jordan. House Veterans Affairs Committee officials, who began an investigation last June after a story in the Army Times on the increase in waivers during the Clinton administration, said they intend to focus on Lawrence and nine other cases. In those examples, West overruled the recommendation of the cemetery superintendent, Jack C. Metzler Jr.

The committee is said to be compiling dozens of examples of applicants who were turned down, which they will compare to those who were granted waivers. Of the nine, “three or four will especially raise eyebrows,” said a congressional source. “There are very serious questions here that need to be answered,” said Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), a member of the panel. In the Senate, meanwhile, both the Armed Services Committee and the Veterans Affairs Committee are considering conducting hearings on the matter.

Lawrence, a Chicago-born developer, was a lifelong Democrat who began his political involvement in Cook County, Ill. With a fortune estimated at $300 million, he gave to a variety of charities, as well as to the Democratic Party. He died of cancer at age 69. Neither his widow nor a spokesperson for her could be reached for comment Thursday night.

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