A top Virginia environmental official resigned today as requested by Gov. George Allen, who was moving swiftly to stem a controversy over a memo that proposed press leaks and threats of lawsuits to discredit Allen's critics.

Michael McKenna, 33, the Department of Environmental Quality's spokesman and policy director, suggested in an internal Dec. 20 memo that the administration threaten to sue a legislative watchdog agency to "get out from under" its criticism of Allen's environmental record. The memo was written about in today's Washington Post and other newspapers.

By this morning, Allen (R) and lawmakers of both parties were calling on McKenna to resign, with one Northern Virginia senator likening the recommendations to the propaganda tactics of Nazi Germany.

The flap is the latest embarrassment to an administration besieged by criticism from federal officials, environmentalists and the watchdog agency, whose December report accused Allen's administration of coddling industrial polluters and neglecting to enforce water-quality laws.

It could hardly come at a worse time for the GOP, which is trying to repair its reputation on the environment as it approaches November's races for governor, lieutenant governor and all 100 House seats.

Allen was terse in his response to McKenna's resignation. "Obviously, I didn't think much of his letter," he told reporters.

Asked why his staff did not act sooner after receiving the Dec. 20 memo, Allen bristled. "My staff has a thousand things to do," he said. "They work hard; they work 20 hours a day. There are a million other things they could bring to my attention. They decide what is important and what is not important."

In his memo, McKenna, who was paid $65,000 a year, suggested several ways to attack the credibility of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the agency criticizing DEQ. Among the recommendations: filing a Freedom of Information request for documents "under our names so they know we're the ones coming after them"; getting a "Congressional oversight guy to talk (off the record)" to reporters about a congressional inquiry into the agency; and writing a letter suggesting a libel lawsuit against the agency and leaking it to the press.

McKenna's resignation letter consisted of the words, "I resign," DEQ Deputy Director T. March Bell said. McKenna, who did not return telephone calls today, apologized for his action, Bell said.

"He realized it was an inappropriate memo," Bell said. "He's sad because he's lost his job. He's sad because he feels as though he let the agency down."

Democrats welcomed McKenna's resignation.

"Mr. McKenna embarrassed this administration," said Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr. (D), his party's likely nominee for governor this year. "He undermined whatever good faith attempts Governor Allen and {others} . . . were taking to restore confidence in the Department of Environmental Quality."

Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax) said on the Senate floor this morning: "There are two tragedies. The first tragedy is the startling degree, in my judgment, to which this proposal came close to employing the techniques of propaganda tactics of the early 1930s . . . in Germany."

McKenna, a Northern Virginia native who lives with his wife and three children in Richmond, was hired as a temporary employee in May 1994 by Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Becky Norton Dunlop, who said he would help provide DEQ "with the experienced personnel and leadership it needs."

In March 1995, he was made DEQ policy and planning director, a civil service position in which he tracked legislative issues and served as an agency spokesman.

McKenna's memo seemed to capture the increasingly political nature of the battle between the agency and its critics. Bell emphasized that McKenna was a civil servant and not an administration appointee, although his resume shows he has played political roles for Allen in the past, volunteering on Allen's 1993 campaign. His resume said he was involved with GOP presidential campaigns in 1988 and 1992. Bell said the agency is investigating the leaking of the memo. Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.