THE SIGN on the wall as you leave the cafetaria is almost plaintive: PLEASE DO NOT Remove China, Silver, Trays, or Glassware from the Cafeteria." It could well be any cafeteria in America, but those words assume greater meaning at the beleaguered General Services Administration.

Over the past year, sensehave become dulled at the constant revelations of fraud, mismanagement and corruption at the GSA. Reform officialxs at the agency have themselves termed it "the biggest money scandal in the history of the U.S. governent."

Such statements, however dramatic, are reckless, just as has been the actual handling of the Gigantic GSA Scandal. The fact is, no one within that $5-billion-a-year building, leasing and supply agency really knows the true extent of taxpayer losses.

In a year's time as columnist Martha Angle and Robert Walters have observed, GSA officials have variously estimated the agency's yearly losses from waste and corruption to be $66 million, $100 million, $166 million, $185 million and $200 million. At one congressional hearing. Vincent R. Alto, then the agency's special counsel and chief investigator, conceded that "it is almost impossible to come up with a definitive figure."

Certainly fraud and corruption have flourished within the GSA for years, as in many other government agencies. However, if the GSA has been losing, say, even $200 million, or 4 percent annually, that must be compared with the private sector, in which yearly lossess of 5 percent are typical.

I do not intend to rationalize or diminish the seirousness of wrongdoing or the loss of taxpayer dollars, but only to place the situation in its proper cotext. For, as Deputy Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti has observed, "GSA" is in the business of buying and selling goods and services on a massive scale. When ever you're in that business, thare is thievery and fraud. Banks have it, oil companies have it, auto companies have it."

The constant hyping and ballyhooing of the Gigantic GSA Scandal makes one wonder where the real truth lies. It also invites critical attention to the underlying assumption that Carter administration - and specifically Joel W.(Jay) Solomon, who endedhis term as GSA administrator yesterday - had been uniquely proficient in running the 37,000-employe agency and in rooting out the supposedly unprecedented corruption therein. Political Patronage

Jimmy Carter entered office declaring, among many other things, that he would depoliticize GSA. He planned to retain Republican Jack Eckerd as administrator. Eckerd, however, refused to accept longtime agency official Rober Griffin, Speaker Tip O'Neill's protege, as his deputy, and quit.

An early campaign supporter and leadin gSouthern fund raise was subsequently chosen by the new president to administer the agency. Thus Jimmy Caryer continued the time-honored tradition of his predecessors, allowing the top post at GDA to remain a dumping ground for political patronage.

Solomon, a Chattanooga real estate developer, was little known even in his native Tenessee. To many Washington obervers, his appointment simply represented a leading fund raiser receving a Washington mini-empire as quid pro quo for his campaign services.

With Solomon, the politicization of GSA increased beyong his appointment. For Exmaple, it was Solomon who recommended to the Civil Service Commission and instituted the policy that all regional administrators be Schedule C (i.e., political) appointees.

GSA Region 3 includes the District of Columbia and neighbouring states. It is the agency's largest, most important and most scandal-riden region. Solomon chose Walter Kallaur to head that region. Kallaur had been a member of the Carter transition team and, in handling the official transition funds was held responsible by the General Accounting Office for a system of falsw authorizations for travel.

For Region 1, Which encompasses New England, Lawrence Bretta of Somerville, Mass., was appointed. A former mayor of Somerville, he was indicted in 1972 for his contract award practices while mayor, but the charges were dropped.

In fairness to Solomon, Kallaur and Bretta both probably had influential sponsors. But a reform administrator, firmly committed to cleaning house, nonetheles could have refused to appoint them. A One-Man Show

AT THE TIME of Solomon's nomination, it was already evident that the GSA was a troubled agency; many criminal investigations were in progress. Concerned about the unfair "cloud of suspiciion" hanging over thousands of innocent GSA employes, Solomon immediately asked his deputy, Robert Griffin, to supervise the agency's internal investigative effort.

Soon 150 employees througout the agency's 10 regions were placed on special assignment to assist in the near-frenzied search for wrong-doing. Of course, this was all in addition to strong investigative efforts by the FBI and efederal prosecutors across the nation. To date, there have been over 40 indictments nationwide, with most of low- and mid-level officals pleading guilty.

Despite the collective efforts of hundreds of officials, it was Solomon who received the lion's share of attention. The shrewd Chattanoogan carefully cultivated the media as no other GSA administrator-or few public officials, for that matter-ever has.

But Solomon was wearing ou his welcome at the White House. The highly publicized investigation-instead of contributing to a general image of the administration's no-nonsense approach toward corruption and mismanagement-had become a one-man show.

By late 1978, Solomon had become so self confident as to critize the president publicly for delaying in choosing an inspector general. One high-level White House official told The Washington Post, "He wants credit for everything. And he equates spending time with him with combating corruption."

To many rank-and-file GSA employees Solomon's headline-grabbing crusade against corruption, combined with his lack of attention to the large agency's daily management, was appalling. Neyond that, some agency officials regarded his statements and his public image to be hypocritical.

The image was the Solomon's leadership was uniquely different from that of his predecessors, that Solomon and his aides abhorred pork-barreling, favoritism and shoddy performance.

But unfortunately, the facts do not support that image.

A few months ago, for instance, a top aide to Solomon, Robert Jones, apparently attempted to direct contracts eventually worth $2 million in word processing equipment to a single company, Four Phase Systems Inc., ingnoring competitive bidding requirements, GSA stopped the initial contract, after a rival company filed a protest with the GAO.

Early this year, GSA procurement officials stopped a $274,000 contract awarded to the University of Florida's Center for Governmental Responsibility. That contract was to evaluate the work the same center had done for the GSA under and earlier $61,000 contract. Internal auditors discovered that the center's bid was $175,000 higher than the nearest competititor's. Astonishingly, there hadn't even been any discussion of price with the competing bidders. Advice Ignored

ONCE OF THE MORE entertaining stories involves Solomon and his closest aide, Robert Rogers. The two Tennesseans, both graduates of Vanderbilit University in Nashville, ramrodded through GSA and the Congress a plan to buy and renovate - under the guise of historic preservation - an abandoned, condemned train station there at a cost of $7.1 million.

GAO report observed that GSA had asked the appropriate congressional committees to approve the project, based on two false assumptions: (1) that there was a need for additional government-owned space in Nashville and (2) that, compared to new construction or leasing, it would cost less to buy and renovate the train station.

GSA's Central Office and Region 4 found no need for additional space in Nashville, In fact, the agency had built a 203,800-square foot building in 1975, And in May 1977, GSA had given the city of Nashville a historic federal building with three times as much usable office space as the railway station.

The station, built in 1900, was clearly a white elephant for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, which had been trying for over a decade to unload it, In 1967, the U.S. Post Office had refused to accept the structure for $1. This year, the federal Center for Disease Control in Atlanta found the building contaminated by pigeon droppings.

GSA's Region 4 informed Solomon that the project to renovate the old station was "economically infeasible" and "in our opionon, the U.S. Government would be at an economic disadvantage to accept the property as a gift."

But that advice was ignored.

As Solomon ends his 23-month stewardship, what has he really accomplished? Has he cleaned up the Gigantic GSA Scandal? Hardly. But, simply by focusing so much publicity on the long-obscure housekeeping agency, Jay Solomon has left an important legacy: The standards he proclaimed, though he did not always live up to them, may now be the ones to which succeeding GSA official will be held.