WASHINGTON - No one has bought their burial plot at Arlington National Cemetery through political contributions, Army Secretary Togo West says. He made public a list of 69 people that had been approved by the Clinton administration for burial to rebut such assertions.
The allegations had set off a surge of calls to the Army and Capitol Hill this week. In return, the White House said the issue had been inflamed into a campaign of lies by lawmakers intent on embarrassing President Clinton.
A review of Federal Election Commission records turned up few large donors on the list made public Friday. West said he granted a waiver for Democratic donor Larry Lawrence because Lawrence died last year while serving as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and had been wounded in combat while serving in the Merchant Marine during World War II.
News reports, quoting anonymous sources, linked the waivers to Democratic Party contributors. Radio talk show hosts picked up on the reports, and lawmakers began getting besieged with calls from angry citizens.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said following release of the names: "No one has come forward with a shred of evidence showing any link between fund-raising and burial plots at the cemetery."
White House spokesman Mike McCurry, meanwhile, lashed out at Congress, saying some members pressed ahead with the accusations in a campaign of "lies, distortions, baseless allegations."
West, at a Pentagon news conference discussing many of the 58 cases that came to him for approval, said he had no knowledge of anyone's fund-raising activities, so it could not have been an issue.
"I made every decision on every case that bears my name and I am the one who would know the basis on which the decision was made," West told reporters. "... If I don't know of any financial involvement and I make my decision solely on the basis of what is before me, how could anybody have bought in?"
Among those buried at Arlington after the waivers were Dr. Albert Sabin, developer of the oral polio vaccine, and journalist-turned-diplomat John Scali.
West did an about-face in releasing the names. He had refused to do so Thursday, citing privacy concerns, but he said Friday said the amount of "suspicion" about the matter had grown to such an extent that the names had to be released.
The secretary said that in the future, he would send every decision on every name to Congress, and make it public, in order to ensure no questions would be raised.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., had demanded the names be made public and said he would subpoena them if necessary. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he would likely hold hearings.
The list showed that Clinton approved four of the 69 waivers. West approved 58 and seven others were approved by two acting secretaries of the Army who served before West took office.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; Elvera Burger, the wife of Chief Justice Warren Burger, who was also buried at the same gravesite a year later; J.W. Seale, an Army veteran and Drug Enforcement Administration agent killed while on duty in Peru; and Henry Joseph Daly, a Marine veteran killed in the line of duty as a Washington, D.C., police officer.
While West normally is the one to grant waivers for such civilian burials, he said Clinton became involved because someone in the White House apparently was contacted about the cases.
At the White House, McCurry said lawmakers ought to be "ashamed," because they had the names of those buried but continued to suggest that the burial plots were sold for contributions to the Democratic Party. The Army sent the names to Capitol Hill in June.
West said he overrode the recommendation of the manager of the nation's most prestigious military cemetery in nine cases, primarily over questions of whether an individual's service record should merit burial, or whether a family member might be buried with a veteran.
Lawrence was one of the largest contributors to the Democrats among Clinton's ambassadorial appointees, with $196,304 in donations from himself, his immediate family and the luxury hotel he controlled, The Coronado in San Diego. When he was named ambassador, critics labeled it the most flagrant example of the way presidents use diplomatic posts to reward political contributors.
West said Lawrence was not one of the cases that members of Congress had indicated they were interested in investigating.
A House Veterans Affairs subcommittee is investigating the waivers granted by West, including one living "high-profile person," said Mike Lewis, a spokesman for Rep. Terry Everett, R-Ala., chairman of the panel.
West, questioned about Lewis' assertion that he had pre-approved a case, said it involved the daughter of a veteran whose condition made it impossible for her to seek an exemption on her own. The mother - who also is in ill health - asked for a pre-approval before her own death, he said.
By The Associated Press