HOUSE SPEAKER Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. has complained of "shabby" treatment by the White House in the firing of his friend and protege, Robert T. Griffin, from the No. 2 job at the General Services Administration. We think Mr. O'Neill is guilty of shabby behavior in taking advantage of the president's current political weakness to holler up a storm over this firing, exploiting the White House's clumsy conduct (or reputation for it: he facts are in dispute) to try to do a favor for a friend. Our principal criticism of Mr. Carter's performance in the matter does not concern who notified whom when, but rather the fact that the president has let himself be bullied into assigning the vice president - no less - to find the displaced Mr. Griffin a comparably well-paying job. Mr. Griffin's contemptuous behavior toward the head of GSA - Carter appointee Jay Solomon - was clearly based on his close relationship to Speaker O'Neill. It is too bad, finally, that Mr. Carter did not persist in indicating to him and his patron Mr. O'Neill that their arrogant assumptions were misplaced.
The president's alleged crime was to have supported Mr. Solomon in his determination to clean up the scandal-plagued agency. "I am sick and tired of 'business as usual' at GSA," Mr. Solomon told a Senate sub-committee last month, and Mr. Griffin was an integral part of what Mr. Solomon was complaining about. It is important to note that Mr. Griffin has not been accused of wrongdoing or incompetence. The problem was that he personified "business as usual" - which at GSA has put less emphasis on internal discipline than on responding to agencies' requests that state of affairs - and placated Mr. O'Neill - by installing Mr. Griffin in the deputy's job. That action caused then-administrator Jack Eckerd to resign. Although Mr. Solomon, a Tennessee developer and Carter fund-raiser, took office in May 1977, many GSA managers apparently thought until last week that Mr. Griffin was really running things - and nothing much had to be changed.
Some problems are almost inevitable at GSA. The agency spends nearly $5 billion a year procuring space, supplies and services. There are immense temptations for employees to accept favors or abuse government credit cards and supply stores - and for contractors to try to rip off the government by rigging bids, manipulating construction contracts and billing for maintenance work that is not done. A great assortment of such abuses has been described in recent stories by staff writer Ronald Kessler. Some of the sums involved may seem small - several dollars for a phantom car wash or several hundred for painting a nonexistant wall. But GSA Special Counsel Vincent R. Alto told the Senate panel last month that fraud alone seems to cost the taxpayers at least $66 million annually. "If you add waste and negligence and carelessness," he said, the annual total is "probably" over $100 million.
The rip-offs have become so widespread and blatant because there have been insufficient audits, poor controls and a general lack of discipline at GSA. That is what Mr. Solomon has set out to change. He has already imposed new contract-review, audit and inspection rules, has redefined managers' responsibilities and has hired Mr. Alto, a former prosecutor, as a special investigator. Mr. Solomon has also made it clear that whistle-blowers in the agency will not be punished or downgraded, as they have been in the past. Such forcefulness, plus the criminal investigations that the Justice Department has launched, may finally put the federal procurement business not just on a lawful course but also on a healthy one. We think a comparable forcefulness will be required to get White House - congressional relationships back on a healthy course, too.