AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland declined yesterday to join in a call for Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan's resignation and said he preferred to wait completion of an investigation into Donovan's business activities.
Kirkland said the allegations against Donovan being explored by a federal grand jury "suggest a certain element of terminal tackiness and sleaziness" but added quickly that he would not want to prejudge the case.
"I don't believe in the Napoleonic code . . . , which presumes that a man is guilty until he's proven innocent," Kirkland told a news conference during the spring meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council. "I do believe we all have a stake in the Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence principle that a man is innocent until proven guilty."
The grand jury, meeting in Brooklyn since February under the guidance of special prosecutor Leon Silverman, has been sifting through a variety of charges that Donovan and his New Jersey construction company had ties to organized crime or were engaged in bid-rigging and other illegal practices.
The jurors met yesterday to hear from a former New Jersey business associate of Donovan's, James J. Donelan, who, sources say, has told authorities that he once had long conversations with Donovan about bid-rigging on New Jersey Turnpike Authority projects.
Donelan eluded most reporters after the session, but later issued a brief statement through his lawyer, Arnold Gold.
"Based upon my relationship with Ray Donovan, I was privy to certain statements made by Mr. Donovan and information relating to Mr. Donovan's methods of business that I thought would be of value to the people investigating Mr. Donovan," Donelan said.
He said he testified before the grand jury "openly and truthfully to the best of my present recollection," answered all the questions put to him, "and did not ask for nor was I given immunity."
"I do not believe immunity is or was necessary," Donelan concluded.
Once head of a company that supplied flashing warning lights for highway barricades, Donelan, according to sources, has asserted that Donovan used to tell him of having an inside track at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority that enabled the Schiavone Construction Co., of which Donovan was executive vice president, to underbid competitors.
Sources say Donelan also raised questions -- although he offered no evidence -- about the placement of a exit ramp off Interstate 78 that leads to the Fiddlers Elbow Country Club near Bedminister, N.J. Schiavone Construction bought Fiddler's elbow in 1964.
Donelan, who headed Flashers Inc., had a falling out with Donovan and Schaivone Construction about 10 years ago. Donelan is now engaged in community work in New Jersey.
At the AFL-CIO news conference here, Kirkland was asked for comment in light of last week's call for Donovan's resignation by Glenn E. Watts, president of the 600,000-member Communications Workers of America and a member of the executive council.
Watts said Donovan's "entire tenure as labor secretary has been under a cloud of continuously unraveling allegations" about his conduct before joining the Reagan Cabinet.
But Kirkland indicated he was more concerned at the moment about what he called the gutting and weakening of Labor Department policies and programs "of vital interest to working people."
When it comes to responsibility for that, Kirkland said, he would put it on President Reagan. He alluded to Donovan as simply "the person who was put over there to carry out the contract, the hit man . . . fulfilling the wishes of his employer."