It started during the declining days of the Nixon regime. There was much smoke - and a lot of fire - to suggest that every high level politicians had used career civil servants to help their land taxpayer-supported jobs for friends, relatives and voters-owned-favors. The idea was to get them on the payroll without going through all that merit system red tape that is designed only for regular folks.

Special illegal job referral units (personnel offices responsible only to politicians) were uncovered in the General Services Administration. Hiring hanky panky was spotlighted at Housing and Urban Development, Small Business Administration and half a dozen other agencies.

First congress investigated. The so-called Henderson Report concluded that a lot of bad stuff had gone on, but failed to recommend anyone for a jail term or the hangman. A lot of time, effort and testimony went into that report. It is now used primarily for door stops in the Cannon House Office Building.

Phase one didn't satisfy critics (from the media, unions and within the bureaucracy) who said the merit system violations were being white-washed. At that point the Civil Service Commission named one of its former top officials to investigate. He did, issuing a new report. It concluded that a lost of bad stuff had been going on, but failed to recommend anybody for a suite in a federal prison.

The so-Called Sharon Report didn't statisfy the critics either. Whitewash! they said again.

Then along comes Jimmy Carter. One of his transition team people did a study that was later called the Lyle Report. People who saw the carefully guarded document said it showed mostly old stuff about buried bodies and who buried them. It came out in bits and pieces. Nobody was hanged for their crimes.

Finally, the new team at the commission hired a top-flight Washington law firm. For a reported $290,000 it turned out what is the heaviest, both in content and by gross weight, report of them all. It concluded that lots of bad things had gone on, but most of the villians were gone from the scene. No wonder! They had had time enough during the intervening investigations to change their names, nationalities and sexes, if they chose.

Guess what the critics have said about the latest report? Whitewash, that's what.

There are two schools of thought. The optimists say that the mere fact that government investigated and publicized the charges will act as a deterrent to present and future politicians drooling over government jobs. The pessimists say overlapping costs of whitewash have protected some of the evil doers - who they say are still in high government jobs - and will encourage future shenanigans.

People in and out of government, people with an interest in good government, disagree on the value of the long running investigations. Some say they helped. Others say a lot of trees were cut down unnecessarily to make paper for the reports. At this point, the only thing both sides agree on is that we've had enough reports and investigations on the subject for awhile. If this truce makes a few politicians more careful, and saves a few trees, it may be the most worthwhile result of the 6-year probe.

Peter J. Hickman has taken over as acting information director for the General Services Administration. He's a former Foreign Service officer.

Programmers: Government Printing Office has 10 openings at Grades 7 through 12. Send applications (Form 171) to Jim Curran, employment branch, Room C-106, City 20-401.

Wood Craftsman: Agriculture in Beltsville has a Wage Grade 10 job. Call Dolores Kauffman on Monday at 334-2768.