Connections can help get Arlington grave – January 28, 1998

Access to high-ranking officials may make it easier to circumvent rules on who can be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the national shrine to U.S. war dead, a report released on Wednesday said.

But the report, by the General Accounting Office, said nothing had been found to back reports that the Clinton administration had granted burial waivers to people who made large contributions to the Democratic Party.

The question of Arlington waivers made headlines in December after a conservative magazine reported that a former U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, Larry Lawrence, obtained one on the basis of his political donations.

Lawrence’s widow, Shelia, had his body disinterred and reburied in California when it was revealed that he won access to the cemetery partly by inventing a Second World War service record.

The cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, has strict eligibility requirements because it is rapidly running out of space. It has about 60,700 plots left, enough to last about 20 years at the current burial rate.

Veterans said they were outraged that people like Lawrence should have graves there when some veterans were excluded.

The GAO report, which takes the form of testimony by Assistant Comptroller General Richard Hembra to a committee in the House of Representatives, said the waiver process was haphazard and arbitrary and could seem unfair.

“When a high-level government official either makes the waiver request or expresses support for the request, the waiver process can be vulnerable to influence,” Hembra said.

“Given that most people do not have access to high-level officials such as the secretary of defense, the selective involvement of such officials in such a sensitive process could result in inconsistencies and perceptions of unfairness in waiver decisions,” he added.

But Hembra’s analysis of the data found that high-level official involvement did not always guarantee a waiver. “We found no evidence to support recent media reports that political contributions have played a role in waiver decisions,” he said.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, based its report on Army case files. A spokeswoman said it did not have the time to do independent research on possible links between burials and donations to political parties.

Data compiled by the GAO showed that the number of waivers and the ratio of approvals to denials had risen steadily since restrictions came into force at Arlington in 1967.

In President Clinton’s first term, from 1993 to 1997, the administration approved 60 waivers and turned down 31, compared with 130 approvals and 108 denials in the previous 24 years.

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