Cohen Involved in Arlington Burial Dispute
Defense Chief Asked Army to Reconsider
Decision on GOP Aide's Father
By: Bradley Graham Washington Post Staff Writer, Thursday,
November 27, 1997
Secretary William S. Cohen intervened to help a Republican congressional
staff member bury his father in Arlington National Cemetery last summer
after Army officials had denied permission for a grave site.
Cohen said yesterday he had met with the staff member, Robert Charles, despite advice from Army Secretary Togo D. West Jr. to avoid getting involved in such an emotionally charged case. Cohen subsequently directed his staff to see what could be done to accommodate Charles.
West ultimately reversed himself and authorized a grave site for Roland W. Charles Jr., although his aides said yesterday that the Army leader acted out of humanitarian considerations, not under any political pressure. Cohen said he never attempted to overrule West by insisting on the burial.
The disclosure, first reported yesterday by the Associated Press, followed a week in which the administration successfully defended itself against unfounded allegations that waivers for burial at the national cemetery had been granted to Democratic campaign donors. Republicans, who have been leading an investigation in the House into the issue of waivers since last summer, had seized on the allegations.
A spokesman for Rep. Terry Everett, an Alabama Republican who heads the Veterans Affairs subcommittee investigation, acknowledged yesterday that the subcommittee staff had been told in July of Charles's effort to seek an exception. The spokesman, Michael Lewis, said neither Everett nor the subcommittee did anything to assist Charles, who is chief of staff and general counsel of another House subcommittee that handles drug and other national security issues for the Government Reform and Oversight Committee.
In a letter to the heads of several veterans groups yesterday, West said he had been moved to reconsider the Charles case after more information was made known to him about the circumstances. He ultimately authorized a new grave site, he said, "out of a sense of decency for the family and its situation." He insisted Cohen's "incidental involvement" had played no part in his final decision.
According to Army officials, the case involved an unprecedented situation. The older Charles was entitled to be buried in Arlington at the site of graves for his father and mother. But when cemetery officials went to prepare the site in July following Charles's death, they found it had been virtually obliterated by the large roots of an oak tree.
At the same time, they were reluctant to approve a new, separate site because nothing in Charles's limited military service or civilian record qualified him for ground burial at Arlington.
So the younger Charles petitioned the White House and the Pentagon for special permission. He said yesterday he was instructed by the cemetery's superintendent, John C. Metzler Jr., to do so.
In correspondence with the cemetery, Charles used the letterhead stationery of his subcommittee, and subsequent Pentagon memos on his case referred to Charles's congressional job. Metzler, in a memo to a senior Army official, reported that Charles had "indicated that he is a personal friend of Secretary Cohen and plans to pursue this issue with the secretary of defense personally."
Charles yesterday denied suggesting he was a friend of Cohen, whom he said he had met previously two or three times. He also regretted using the congressional stationery, saying he had been rushed and distraught over his father's death.
But he strongly defended pushing for his father's burial, calling it "the right thing to do" and taking offense that his efforts were now being portrayed as "something political."
Unable last summer to gain help from the White House, Charles sought a meeting with Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine. West advised against it in a July 22 note to Cohen's chief of staff, saying past secretaries and presidents "have often preferred to distance themselves from these burial decisions because they can be so emotional and as in this case potentially precedent-breaking."
Cohen phoned West that day with a request to reconsider. Later that day, West wrote Cohen's chief of staff another memo reaffirming his opposition to a waiver. West said Cohen "is always free to overrule me," but added in a postscript: "I hope he will not choose to do so. This will be a big deal with the veterans and the Veterans Committee."
Cohen met with Charles two days later.
"I was told he was highly anxious" in the wake of his father's death, Cohen explained in an interview yesterday. "Something had to be done. Couldn't he meet with me for a few minutes? I was very new here, and back in my senatorial days, I always had an open door. If you had a problem, come on in.
"By the time I heard everything, I said, 'If there's a way to work it out, fine. But if not, the decision is up to the secretary, not me,' " Cohen added.
Before the end of the day, West had granted the exception. West said in his letter to veterans yesterday that he had changed his mind after realizing that the Charles family had "a justifiable expectation" of burial in Arlington, thwarted only by the encroachment of tree roots. He also said he had been distressed to learn that, two days after denying the burial, the body had not been interred anywhere.