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Doubts raised on Bush accuser

Key witness disputes charge by Guard retiree that files were purged

For at least six years, a retired Texas National Guard officer has maintained that President Bush's record as a member of the Guard was purged of potentially embarrassing material at the behest of high-ranking Bush aides laying the groundwork for Bush's 2000 run for the presidency.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Bill Burkett, who has been pressing his charges in the national news media this week, says he even heard one high-ranking officer issue a 1997 order to sanitize the Bush file, and later saw another officer poring over the records and discovered that some had been discarded.

But a key witness to some of the events described by Burkett has told the Globe that the central elements of his story are false.

George O. Conn, a former chief warrant officer with the Guard and a friend of Burkett's, is the person whom Burkett says led him to the room where the Bush records were being vetted. But Conn says he never saw anyone combing through the Bush file or discarding records.

"I have no recall of that," Conn said. "I have no recall of that whatsoever. None. Zip. Nada."

Conn's recollection also undercuts another of Burkett's central allegations: that he overheard Bush's onetime chief of staff, Joe M. Allbaugh, telling a Texas Guard general to make sure there were no embarrassments in the Bush record.

Burkett says he told Conn, over dinner that same night, what he had overheard. But Conn says that, although Burkett told him he worried that the Bush record would be sanitized, he never mentioned overhearing the conversation between Allbaugh and General Daniel James III.

Burkett's allegations about the Bush records come as the White House is attempting to answer mounting questions about whether Bush fulfilled his obligations as a member of the Texas Air Guard during the early 1970s. Burkett's allegations also will be a major focus of a book on Bush to be published next month.

But the book's author, James Moore, a former Houston TV news correspondent, concedes he never interviewed some of the key players who could have verified Burkett's charges, including Conn and retired National Guard Colonel John Scribner -- the officer Burkett says he saw removing items from the Bush file.

Moore, told yesterday that Conn contradicts Burkett's story, said he believes Burkett's allegations are true. "I think we're into a classic he-said, she-said," Moore said.

Earlier this week, Burkett told the Globe that, in the telephone conversation between Allbaugh and James, Allbaugh said the Bush file had to be sanitized because two of Bush's aides were planning to review the records in preparation for Bush's 1999 autobiography, "A Charge to Keep." Burkett said that he overheard the conversation, conducted over James's speaker phone, while standing outside the open door of James's office, and that he was so troubled he told Conn about it that evening.

But Conn, now a civilian government employee working with the US Army in Germany, said Burkett never told him of the conversation. And Allbaugh, a Washington consultant and lobbyist, said, "I would never be so stupid as do something like that."

Allbaugh said he discussed Bush's file with Guard officials but only because Bush wanted to review it, and had never seen it.

Burkett, in his Globe interview and in Moore's book, titled "Bush's War for Re-election," said that a week to 10 days after he overheard the conversation between Allbaugh and James, Conn brought him to an office at the Camp Mabry military history museum, where Conn introduced Burkett to Scribner. Burkett says that at the moment they met Scribner, the officer was busy scrubbing the Bush file.

According to Burke, Conn asked Scribner what he was doing and Scribner replied that he was looking through Bush's records. Burkett said Conn and Scribner then briefly left him alone, and that he saw some pages of Bush's military records in a trash can near Scribner's desk.

Conn contradicts most of Burkett's rendition. He said that he remembers introducing Burkett to Scribner at the museum but that Scribner never said he was going over the Bush file. "If he had said he was going through George W. Bush's records I would have dropped my teeth. Wow," Conn said. "I would definitely have remembered that. I don't recall that at all."

Burkett also says that, before the encounter with Scribner, he was standing with a group of Guard officers, and heard a ranking officer order Scribner to review the Bush file and remove any documents that might be embarrassing to the then-governor.

But Scribner told the Globe yesterday that no such thing occurred. "It didn't happen. I wasn't even there," Scribner said.

Burkett has, in the past, raised his allegations about the Bush records as part of his personal struggle with the Guard over medical benefits.

For instance, in a 1998 letter to Texas state Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, Burkett complained that he had not received adequate medical care when he became seriously ill after returning from a mission to Panama.

He also said Guard officials had retaliated against him because he had conducted a management study critical of the Guard.

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