Top presidential advisers have been moving quietly to replace Jay Solomon as head of the scandalridden General Services Administration, while laying careful groundwork to assure that the change is seen as a resignation and not a firing.
Some White House officials have been upset by Solomon's willingness to talk to reporters and to permit disclosures in the press of each facet of the GSA scandal -- a scandal of widespread corruption that predates the Carter administration.
But a senior White House official emphasized that Solomon has effectively pursued the scandal probe and is in no way tainted by it. And President Carter's advisers are aware that the replacement of Solomon is a sensitive matter politically and that the White House cannot even appear to be firing him. One official stressed that the president still has "full confidence" in Solomon, even as the hunt for his replacement is in progress.
Over the past several weeks, Carter's advisers have been searching for a successor and several people were called about taking the job, according to a senior White House official. The aide stressed that it was Solomon who months ago asked to be replaced "sometime in the first part of the year."
But Solomon said he had not asked to be replaced, and that he had not been told that the search for his successor was underway. "I told them a long time ago that I didn't come up here for the rest of my life -- and that at some point I wanted to go back home" to Chattanooga, Tenn., Solomon said. "But that point was for me to determine."
According to a senior White House official, the changeover probably will come in April. "We're at a point where it is important for us and Jay to plan for the transition," the official said. "Frankly, we would have preferred that nothing come out publicly about this now."
Among those involved in the decision to look for a replacement for Solomon, according to the aide, were presidential assistant Hamilton Jordan, Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, who was consulted because the decision involves who will run the scandal investigation, and Charles Kirbo, the Atlanta attorney and close friend of Carter who has been designated by him to monitor the progress of the GSA investigation.
Solomon clearly was caught offguard when a Washington Post reporter first told him that the White House was searching for his successor."Actually, I sort of assumed this was coming," he said, his normally quiet speaking voice becoming even softer. "I mean, I've had a feeling for a while -- it was just my instincts... Maybe I've been going too fast, too hard. Maybe I've been getting too close to the truth -- but what that truth is, I don't know."
Solomon said that in recent weeks he had felt "a lack of support" from the White House for his efforts to pursue the investigation. And sources close to Solomon have said he has had difficulty in getting his telephone calls returned by top White House officials, including Jordan.
Solomon is known to have been upset that Carter delayed in acting on his recommendation for an inspector general, who would head the investigation of corruption in the agency. He had recommended to Carter before Christmas that the job be given to Irwin M. Borowski, a Securities and Exchange official. Originally, Solomon urged that Borowski be quickly named acting inspector general, which could have been done immediately at the time because Congress was not in session.Since Congress has convened, the appointment now will require Senate confirmation.
Solomon said he has had no explanation from the White House for the delay in naming an inspector general. The explanation, according to a senior White House official, is that Solomon's successor also ought to have a role in the selection. The choice, he said, should be someone who will be satisfactory to Solomon and his replacement.
Solomon incurred the wrath of the Carter inner circle -- and reportedly the president -- last summer in an incident involving the firing of GSA Deputy Administrator Robert T. Griffin, a close friend of House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.).
The decision to fire Griffin was reached at a meeting involving Carter, Solomon, Jordan and congressional liaison chief Frank Moore.
Later that day, Moore went to Capitol Hill to break the news to the speaker. He found O'Neill enraged because a reporter had telephoned his office and disclosed what had been decided at the meeting. A bitter feud erupted between O'Neill and the White House, and the Carter officials blame Solomon. They say they are sure he was responsible for passing the information to the reporter.
(Under pressure from O'Neill, the president later relented on the firing of Griffin and instead ordered that he be shifted from GSA to the office of his special representative for trade.)
Some of the president's senior advisers have been unhappy with Solomon and the frequent coverage in the press of his efforts to rid his agency of scandal. There were articles, for example, on Solomon's recommendation for the inspector general's job and the fact that Carter was delaying in acting on it.
"To return Solomon's phone calls would be a full-time job," said one high-level Carter official. "He wants credit for everything. And he equates spending time with him with combatting corruption.
"There's no lack of support or enthusiasm for the investigation. But there is a lack of interest in playing it up so big all the time. We're going to make it Jimmy Carter's issue and not Jay Solomon's.
"You don't have to have the details of the investigation appear in the press at every step along the way. I mean, if Jay Solomon was a cop and was going to pull a gambling raid today, he'd have seen to it that it was already in the paper this morning."
After The Washington Post began making queries about the move to replace Solomon, the GSA administrator was suddenly called to Jordan's White House office at 5 p.m. Friday. Shortly before 6 Jordan called The Washington Post to stress that the GSA chief, who was still in his office, was not being fired.
"There's no truth to it," Jordan said. "He hasn't been fired. He isn't going to be fired. Jay has reminded me on several occasions that he didn't come up here to stay forever. I've labored under the assumption that he'll be going at some point. But that's his decision."
Jordan paused and added, "It's really true."
Jordan refused to deny, however, that a search for Solomon's successor was in progress. Other informed sources had confirmed both before and after the conversation that presidential confidents were looking for the replacement.
After Jordan finished speaking, Solomon took the phone. With Jordan still in the room, the GSA chief talked of greatly reduced expectations as to how long he will be staying in his job. "I can only tell you I have no immediate plans to leave," Solomon said. "I'm going to see a certain part of this investigation through."
Solomon said in a later phone interview that what he most wants to see before he leaves is the appointment of Borowski as inspector general. But he said Jordan did not tell him definitely that Borowski would get the job, nor did Jordan promise to recommend the appointment.
Earlier Friday, when a reporter told Solomon that the search for his successor was underway, he said he had neither heard of the action nor requested it.
Asked if he would resign if requested to by the president or one of his assistants, Solomon replied, "Sure."
Then he was asked whether he would be willing to make it appear that the timing of the resignation was his idea.
"Sure," Solomon said again. "I'll do whatever they want."