The White House did not try to stop Loretta Cornelius, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, from firing seven political appointees loyal to former director Donald J. Devine, presidential spokesman Larry Speakes said yesterday.
At the same time, the White House has been telling Devine's loyalists at OPM to "sit tight and stay put," according to two targets of Cornelius' purge.
"The White House has given her no direction on how to run the agency," Speakes told reporters at his daily briefing.
But one of the fired staff members, special assistant George Nesterczuk, said the White House "told me to just hang in there, don't do anything rash." Another Devine loyalist added: "The word we received is sit tight and stay put." Asked how one can "sit tight" when the acting director is ordering him to leave, this employe replied: "Obviously that complicates things."
Cornelius' abrupt ouster this week of several of Devine's key aides is the latest episode in what has become a classic Washington soap opera, riling Devine's conservative allies, embarrassing the White House and leaving the nation's personnel agency in a state of near-turmoil.
The drama continued into the evening, with Devine loyalists spreading rumors that Cornelius had been fired, and a White House official responding that the reports of her ouster were "absolutely not true."
Late yesterday, several Devine supporters huddled in an OPM office awaiting resolution of the controversy. "She was spotted leaving the building in sunglasses and looking rather distraught," Nesterczuk said.
Added Mark S. Tapscott, Devine's public information director, "I didn't see her leave, but people who did said she looked like death warmed over, and that's unusual for her -- she's usually Miss Smiley-Face."
Cornelius' spokesman, John L. Kill Kelley, indicated yesterday that more firings may be coming. "Miss Cornelius is constantly reviewing the need for people," he said.
Speculation centered on policy aide Patrick Korten and Tapscott as the next likely targets.
Korten, a longtime Devine political aide, served as his communications director and chief spokesman. Asked yesterday about his fate, Korten said, "I really have no idea."
Devine's OPM term legally ended March 26, and the Reagan administration had nominated him for a second four-year term. But Devine was forced to withdraw last week, after a disclosure that he tried to retain all authority after his term expired.
Cornelius' testimony to the Senate was considered particularly damaging to Devine, but her statements may also have fatally damaged her chances of being permanently appointed OPM director.