There's a bureaucratic tussle going on at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and it doesn't have anything to do with seat belts, air bags or rubber bumpers.

The flap is over NHTSA general counsel Frank Berndt's affirmative action hiring record, with the Department of Transportation's civil rights office on one side and Berndt's boss, Joan Claybrook, on the other.

It is the story of how a boss's attempt to reward a subordinate went sour in the bureaucracy, leaving the boss angry and the subordinate troubled and on the defensive.

"My friends tell me there's gossip all over the 10th floor," headquarters for top DOT officials, Berndt says.

"I believe my reputation has been damaged. It's unjust, but it's one of those things that just happens.I'm not a sissy, I can take it," Berndt says.

The story began to take shape this spring when Claybrook nominated Berndt for a presidential bonus of several thousand dollars for his excellent work, under the terms of the Civil Service reform law.

"He is a magnificent lawyer. Because of his fine work, our agency has won almost every case it's been involved in," says Claybrook.

But in May the answer came back from the DOT selection board, and it was no. There was no official explanation. But at about this time the rumors started brewing on the floor, dripping down to Claybrook and Berndt, who work five floors below.

The gossip was that DOT's civil rights office had axed Berndt's nomination on grounds that he has a poor affirmative action record.

As is usually the case, the story on the grapevine was in part true, in part not. The civil rights office had been responsible for killing Berndt's bonus. But it had done so not because his minority hiring record was abominable but because it was just fair.

"The Civil Service reform imposes the responsibility for equal employment opportunity on every federal executive. We were asked if he had an exceptional record for an extraordinary reward. We said it was ordinary at best," according to an official in DOT's civil rights office.

"We had no intention that he be punished or fired, but Secretary [Neil] Goldschmidt takes EEO very seriously," the official said.

Word got out, though, and spread. Berndt first heard about the rumor from someone in another agency's civil rights office.

Berndt's EEO record is not outstanding -- a fact that he admits regretfully: "I would like to have a better record. I would like to get more blacks into this office."

His office has 24 full-time lawyers. Seventeen of those are white males, seven are women, and one is a black woman. There are no Hispanic lawyers in the office. The clerical employes in his office are women; a majority are also minorities.

"It's easier for me to get highly qualified women out of the law schools. With minorities it's harder. The competition for them is fierce," Berndt says.

"The higher quality blacks are plucked up right away by the large firms," he says.

Berndt has been in charge of hiring off and on for a total of about three years since 1975. In that time, the size of his office has grown. When he took charge in 1975, there were 16 lawyers. Three of them were women, none were minority.

Over the years, 30 lawyers have been hired: 19 white men and 11 women. Two of the women are black. On three occasions during that period his office offered jobs to blacks but lost them to other employers.

While Berndt took a low profile on the issue, Claybrook took the offensive in his behalf.

"I think he has an excellent affirmative action record. He has done on his own initiative more than any other part of DOT," Claybrook says.

"He has one black lawyer on his staff and I think he had offered jobs to two or three others in the last few years. That's not a reprehensible record for that small an office," Claybrook says.

Claybrook, who is charged with overseeing NHTSA's equal employment opportunity policy, wrote in the agency's 1980 affirmative action plan that the agency must ensure equal opportunity "bearing in mind that even the appearance of discrimination" must be avoided.

"I intend to hold each of my subordinates accountable for EEO agency goals and expect that managers at all levels will share this responsibility," she wrote.

During a lunch several weeks ago, Claybrook defended Berndt and suggested she might get even with the civil rights office by nominating Berndt for DOT's top EEO award.

Two weeks ago she did just that.

If Berndt gets the award, the secretary will present it to him in DOT's courtyard, where enough such departmental awards are given out each year "to fill up our newsletter," says Bob Holland, a DOT spokesman.

And Frank Berndt is left wishing he had never been nominated for anything.