An oversight unit set up last year by General Services Administrator Gerald P. Carmen to help polish up the tarnished image of his agency "possibly violated federal statutes" in its probe of the agency's own employes, said GSA Inspector General Joseph A. Sickon.

In a report made public last Thursday, Sickon said the internal unit -- called the Office of Oversight -- may have jeopardized a criminal investigation and went "beyond the purview . . . of its responsibilities" in at least four instances.

Carmen established the office last fall to counter the kind of fraud, waste and criminal actions that have plagued GSA over the last decade. But Sickon suggests that some of the people Carmen assigned to oversee the agency's programs may have been overzealous, infringing on areas reserved for the inspector general.

Carmen, who said he established the Oversight Office as "a necessary management tool," said the "issues raised by the inspector general's audit report hopefully are the result of the natural tension between two governmental units moving ahead to accomplish this administration's goals."

Carmen has strongly supported the work of the inspector general's office, including ordering his public affairs office to expedite disclosing IG reports, however critical of the agency.

But he said, in response to Sickon's report: "I find no exclusivity of legal authority granted to the inspector general over the conduct of investigations, whether they involve detection and elimination of fraud and abuse or any other matter of concern to the agency head."

Sickon's report focuses on four instances where IG investigators believe Carmen's oversight office strayed onto their turf.

In one case, Sickon said, the office was told by the Justice Department that it had violated criminal provisions of the Privacy Act while trying to investigate fraud involving time cards.

In another case, the report says, the oversight office improperly took action against an employe suspected of fraudulently trying to obtain government parking spaces for van pools.

The report says that the employe was suspended and formally interviewed by the oversight office before the inspector general's office was notified of the allegations.

"These investigative activities . . . have become progressively more serious, have caused confusion to GSA employes and management officials and prejudiced the prosecutive potential of a criminal case," Sickon said.

Sickon's 12-page report concluded that Carmen should tighten the authority of the oversight office and abolish its investigative arm.

Carmen immediately said he would "eliminate those responsibilities which require the employment of investigative efforts" but noted that he would ask the Justice Department if the Inspector General Act of 1978 "diminishes the powers of an agency head to look independently into the functioning of any element under his responsibility."

Carmen said he was concerned that the IG's findings "may limit our effectiveness in managing the agency . . . and could inadvertently send GSA back to the days where waste, fraud and abuse were rampant."

The Office of Oversight will retain its responsibility for reviewing internal security, audit resolution and administrative matters.

In the report, the IG criticized the oversight office for:

* Receiving and processing complaints of employe misconduct. GSA's own regulations say such complaints should be given to inspector general's office.

* Trying to obtain access to official travel documents and specific employe travel vouchers maintained by GSA's Office of Finance as part of the Privacy Act system of records.