The Reagan White House last year considered hiring a $192-a-day private investigator to facilitate internal security checks of incoming personnel and to provide advice on selected issues such as terrorism.
The consultant White House aides had in mind, Philip R. Manuel, a veteran congressional investigator who had set up his own business, was never formally hired.
But he was provided with a temporary White House pass and an office in the Old Executive Office Building before the arrangement, in his words, "atrophied."
The arrangement came to light this weekend because of reports circulating on Capitol Hill that Manuel might have been a source of advice for Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan's New Jersey construction company in its recent hiring of a force of private detectives.
Manuel vehemently denies giving any such advice.
Those reports come as a special prosecutor's investigation into the allegations against Donovan is drawing to a close. Special prosecutor Leon Silverman, a New York attorney, said yesterday that his report will be released here and in New York today.
Silverman's report is the result of a six-month investigation into allegations that Donovan and the company, Schiavone Construction Co., had ties to organized crime and were involved in bid-rigging and union corruption.
Schiavone, of Secaucus, N.J., announced in May that it had hired investigators to investigate the Senate committee that had been investigating it and Donovan.
Theodore Geiser, a Newark lawyer for the firm, said the company wanted to find out who was "deliberately leaking information to the media to prejudice an ongoing investigation."
In a telephone interview yesterday, Manuel said he was "furious" with the reports linking him to the sleuths for Schiavone. He denied making any suggestions to Schiavone Construction, to Donovan, or to the White House about the counter-probe.
He also denied that the assignments the White House had broached resembled in any way the "plumbers" unit that had been set up under President Nixon.
According to Manuel, most of his discussions last year about a White House consultancy were with Edward V. Hickey Jr., director of special support services for President Reagan, and some were with presidential counselor Edwin Meese III. Manuel described both men as old friends.
Hickey, a former Secret Service agent who met Reagan on a campaign detail in 1958 and then became his security chief in California, also disavowed any contacts with Donovan's company.
"They couldn't be that . . . stupid to call the White House," he exclaimed yesterday in a telephone interview. "After all, a special prosecutor has been appointed."
Hickey, who said he met Donovan years ago during the course of Reagan's travels as governor of California, acknowledged having gotten a $9,600 personal loan from Donovan last year. But Hickey said:
"He Donovan is an Irishman who likes other Irishmen. We became friends. He likes me, and respects me. . . . It is strictly a loan. It was totally a family thing, with seven boys to support , tuition and orthodontists and all that. Ray Donovan has never asked me to do a thing or lift a finger in his behalf."
Hickey said he called Manuel last year for help in speeding up the background checks on military personnel assigned to various White House chores, from helicopter duty to slots on the crew of Air Force One.
"The thing was really a horrendous problem," Hickey said. "The Department of Defense took months and months. I felt with Phil's expertise, he could come in as a consultant and move it along."
Manuel, a former investigator for the Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), said he and Hickey also discussed the prospect of studies on such issues as terrorism and narcotics.
Manuel said there was never any talk of how to handle political investigations or how to counter political enemies.
Manuel said he first met Meese in the mid-'60s in connection with his work for HUAC at the time Meese was an assistant prosecutor in Alameda County, Calif., and testified before HUAC on student unrest.
According to Manuel, the main reason he didn't get the White House account was the fact that he was drawn away by other new clients in 1981 who began commanding most of his attention. First, he said, there was the Ramada Hotel Corp., which had recently purchased the Tropicana Casino in Las Vegas, and then there was Penthouse magazine, which was facing a protracted libel suit on the West Coast.
Manuel said he "sat in" the EOB office set aside for him "one or two afternoons as we discussed different things" last year. He said he might have gone to the White House "maybe a dozen times" on his temporary pass. But he said the pass "expired some time around the first of this year."
In response to a question, Manuel said the White House hasn't called him for advice "for a while." The last time he could remember was "sometime in January" and the inquiry, he said, concerned "the adequacy of State Department security . . . as it related to terrorism," a subject he had studied as a Senate investigator.
Manuel said he never met the chief investigator Schiavone hired, Robert Shortley, 60, a former FBI agent and Senate investigator.
Shortley's wife, Maiselle, works at the White House, and a brother-in-law, Anthony Dolan, is a Reagan speechwriter. Another brother-in-law, Terry Dolan, is director of the National Conservative Political Action Committee.
Hickey said he had known Shortley for years, when they both worked at the State Department. But Hickey said he never talked to Shortley about the Schiavone assignment until after Shortley had gotten it.
When first contacted about the matter by The Washington Post Friday, Manuel was at a conference here of a group called Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE).
Manuel said he went back again Saturday when his wife, an IRE member, burst out into the hallway and said, "You'll never believe what's happening here."
It turned out that Schiavone's lawyer, Geiser, and Schiavone's president, Ronald Schiavone, and their wives, were attending one of the sessions as conference participants, and Geiser had gotten into a debate with some IRE members over press coverage of the Donovan investigation.
Manuel said he hadn't known that the Schiavone officials were there and wouldn't have recognized them anyway. He said he "rushed into the room to listen to the debate," but "I didn't say a word to them."