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Lawmakers Question Proof Of Donor's Military Service

By Stephen Barr and Terry M. Neal
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

House Republicans said Thursday that an investigation of military records had turned up no sign that a major Democratic donor who is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, M. Larry Lawrence, served in the Merchant Marine during World War II, as he had long claimed.

Lawrence was among 69 individuals over the last five years who received special waivers to be buried at the cemetery, the nation's most hallowed military burial ground. Last month, White House and Army officials, citing Lawrence's wartime record, vigorously defended their decision to allow him to be interred in Arlington.

But Rep. Terry Everett, R-Ala., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said, "We have found that Mr. Lawrence's name does not appear in at least three locations where a reasonable person would expect it to appear in the records."

The new questions about Lawrence revived a political drama that had seemed put to rest after Republicans backed off earlier accusations that President Clinton had rewarded rich Democratic donors with burial plots at Arlington. The issue, which has inspired outrage both among those accusing and defending the administration, has been sustained by the congressional inquiry and conservative commentators. The new allegations arose after the conservative columnist Arianna Huffington said that a longtime aide to Lawrence told her she believed his war record was a fabrication. The aide, Norma Nicholls, confirmed her account in an interview.

Thursday's events raised the possibility of demands that Lawrence's body be removed from Arlington cemetery. "If that did turn out to be the case, it would be distressing, obviously," White House spokesman Mike McCurry said. Said Everett: "I don't know what we'll do."

Lawrence died in 1996 while serving as ambassador to Switzerland. Administration officials, who asked not to be identified, said they had accepted Lawrence's account of his wartime service at the time of his nomination in 1993, but acknowledged that State Department security officers had been unable to locate his military records then.

Lawrence and his family and companies gave about $200,000 to Democrats between 1991 and 1996, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He operated the famed Hotel del Coronado near San Diego, and Clinton sometimes vacationed with Lawrence, who was once named as one of Forbes 400 richest Americans. Clinton delivered one of the eulogies at his funeral.

Lawrence's harrowing story of his wartime service impressed administration officials who met him. He recounted enlisting in the Merchant Marine in 1944 at the age of 18. He said that the following year he was aboard the liberty ship SS Horace Bushnell when it came under attack by a German submarine in the Arctic Ocean near the Russian port of Murmansk. During the torpedo attack, Lawrence said he was thrown overboard and suffered serious head injuries.

Thursday, Lawrence's widow, Shelia Davis Lawrence, said she was "shocked and dismayed" by the GOP news conference that raised doubt about Lawrence's military service.

"He is dead and cannot defend himself," Shelia Davis Lawrence said in a statement. "I am not prepared to change my beliefs based on statements by people who have previously demonstrated a meanness of spirit and a lack of concern for either truth or decency."

Everett defended the House inquiry into Lawrence's record as an effort to preserve the integrity and sanctity of Arlington National Cemetery.

In a letter to the secretaries of Defense and State, Everett said a search of National Maritime Center records used to confirm World War II service failed to find Lawrence's name.

Everett said Lawrence's name also does not appear on the official record of persons serving on the Horace Bushnell. The ship's casualty report lists the names of four crew members killed by the torpedo blast and a fifth who died from shock and a heart attack.

"There is no account of "serious head injuries' or of any injury to an individual named Lawrence," Everett wrote the Cabinet secretaries.

Administration memos released by Everett showed that then-assistant secretary of state Richard C. Holbrooke, apparently drawing on State Department files, provided the detailed account of Lawrence's seagoing heroism that served as part of the justification for his waiver to be buried at Arlington.