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02/03/98- Updated 08:11 PM ET

Justice probing Lawrence's nomination

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department is investigating whether the Clinton administration did anything improper to aid the late Ambassador M. Larry Lawrence in exchange for his large donations to the Democratic Party, according to documents and interviews.

The matter has been referred to the department's task force investigating campaign finance irregularities, a federal law enforcement official told The Associated Press Tuesday on the condition of anonymity.

The same task force is investigating campaign contributions made to President Clinton's 1996 re-election effort. Both Lawrence, who owned the landmark Hotel del Coronado near San Diego, and his wife were major Democratic contributors.

The State Department, in a letter obtained by AP, also confirmed there was a Justice Department probe.

Investigators are checking whether Lawrence's six-figure donations had anything to do with:

  • His selection as ambassador to Switzerland.
  • The failure of the State Department and White House, as they reviewed Lawrence's nomination in 1993, to determine the accuracy of his claim to have served in the Merchant Marine during World War II. Officials have said they found no war record during the vetting but decided not to pursue it.
  • His burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Lawrence, a year after his death, garnered national headlines when the public learned that he had been buried at Arlington National Cemetery, a site usually reserved for veterans and national heroes.

When Republicans in Congress failed to turn up any evidence of Merchant Marine service, Lawrence's widow had his body exhumed and reburied in San Diego.

Both the Coast Guard and the State Department since have concluded that Lawrence's claim of Merchant Marine service was false. Indeed, records show that Lawrence was a full-time student at the same time he had claimed to have been on a ship in the Pacific Ocean.

The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs oversight subcommittee, Rep. Terry Everett, R-Ala., told The Birmingham News last week that he believed the Clinton administration doctored Lawrence's record so he could be confirmed.

"I suspect that there has either been a cover-up or that somewhere along the line at the State Department or the White House, Mr. Lawrence's file was sanitized to enable him to become ambassador to Switzerland," Everett told the paper.

The White House has denied such allegations.

Last week, the State Department's assistant secretary for legislative affairs, Barbara Larkin, sent a letter to the House Veterans Affairs Committee. In it, she said that the Justice Department and the State Department inspectors general were conducting a criminal investigation into Lawrence's nomination.

Both the State Department's inspector general's office and the Justice Department declined comment. The House panel is conducting its own investigation into the Lawrence nomination.

At an oversight subcommittee hearing last week, Coast Guard Capt. Michael Rosecrans said he could find no record that Lawrence served in the Merchant Marine.

Eric J. Boswell, assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, told the panel that a more recent State Department investigation into Lawrence's background "concluded that he had not served in the Merchant Marine, as he had alleged."

And Norma C. Nicolls, a longtime aide to Lawrence, testified that she told federal investigators who were doing a background check to investigate her boss's resume. She noted it had him attending school at the same time he supposedly served in the Merchant Marine.

Nicolls also said that Lawrence asked her in the mid-1980s to do research into Merchant Marine ships that were in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. She said that after she finished the research, Lawrence started contributing to maritime groups.

"I mentioned to his secretary that it looked as though the boss was trying to establish some kind of relationship with the Merchant Marines," she told the subcommittee.

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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