General Services Administrator Jay Solomon yesterday told his top aide, deputy administrator Robert T. Griffin, a 35-year GSA veteran, to resign from the agency or be fired.
The move provoked an angry reaction from Griffin's close friend and supporter, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), who called the decision to remove Griffin "cruel" and "one of the worst things I have ever seen."
Solomon reacting to federal and internal investigations revealing widespread corruption with GSA, was said to have become convinced in recent months that he could not effectively run the sprawling agency because employes were not sure whether he or Griffin was in charge.
GSA spends about $5 billion a year to provide federal workers with office space and supplies.
Because of his relationship with O'Neill and his tenure at GSA, Griffin, 61, had his own base of power, and many GSA employes felt he would outlast Solomon.
Solomon's decision to remove Griffin was endorsed in recent weeks by President Carter and top White House aides, despite the potential political damage of a conflict with O'Neill. Carter currently needs O'Neill's support to obtain passage of his energy and tax legislation in Congress.
Some White House observers view the firing of Griffin as a small but significant test of strength between Carter and Capitol Hill.
"We don't see this as a tug of war," one high administration source said last night."It's just a management thing. Someone is either in charge of a department or they are not.
"It's festered and now it's come to a head, and Jay Solomon is quite appropriately exercising his authority as head of the agency."
Administration sources have said recently that Carter became alarmed at the magnitude of GSA corruption being disclosed and was concerned that the scandal might begin to reflect on his administration unless strong action was taken.
Investigations by the offices of the U.S. attorneys here and in Baltimore and by the FBI have found that dozens of GSA employes have been certifying receipt by the agency of goods or services that were not received. In return, according to sources familiar with the investigations, each employe received in a two-year period as much as $250,000 from the private companies providing GSA with office supplies or maintenance work.
Because Carter was so concerned, he agreed to back Solomon fully in whatever moves Solomon might make, the administration sources said.
Underling that decision, Carter asked Attorney General Griffin B. Bell to provide Solomon with any support he needs. The Justice Department recently assigned two lawyers to work at GSA with the agency's internal investigators on areas of possible corruption separate prosecutors.
After The Washington Post reported yesterday that a decision had been reached to fire Griffin, White House aide Hamilton Jordan, in a telephone call, told Solomon to remove Griffin despite O'Neill's objections, administration sources said.
Solomon asked Griffin to meet with him at 4:30 p.m. in Solomon's office. At the meeting, Solomon had planned to tell Griffin of the decision. But Griffin, who spent most of the day with O'Neill, told Solomon through, an aide that he would not appear for the meeting.
As a result, Solomon prepared a letter to be delivered by hand to Griffin yesterday evening. The letter said:
"Because of the differences of opinion which continue to exist between you and myself regarding management of GSA, I request that you take advantage of the retirement benefits for which you are eligible, as a result of your 35 years of public service.
"Should you decide not to do so, I will have no choice but to terminate your employment in my capacity as administrator of GSA.
"I personally regret that the problems which have existed between us could not be resolved. I would appreciate an immediate response . . ."
Appended to the letter was a note informing Griffin that he will be terminated if he has not responded by 8:30 a.m. today.GSA sources said Griffin was handed the letter at his home but refuse to accept it last night.
In a statement preceding the letter, Solomon said that firing Griffin "is not related to any allegations of impropriety or wrongdoing by Griffin. Solomon's Statement said Griffin is "a man of high moral character and personal integrity."