Nine days before he left office last year, Postmaster General William F. Bolger named the wife of a retiring Postal Service official who is a close friend of Bolger's to a $31,000-a-year postmaster's job in a small Cape Cod town where the couple had bought a retirement home.

The new postmaster of Marston Mills, Mass., is Joan Sande Shuman, a former Postal Service secretary who worked for Bolger in the mid-1970s. Bolger made the appointment in December as Shuman's husband, George, was stepping down as New York City postmaster. The New York couple was preparing to move to the Cape Cod town of Barnstable, which includes Marston Mills.

Bolger elevated Joan Shuman over four other Postal Service candidates working on Cape Cod, despite the organization's policy of giving preference to qualified applicants from the surrounding area. One woman who was passed over had twice served as acting postmaster in Marston Mills.

Bolger, who once shared a New York apartment with George Shuman and last year bought a Cape Cod vacation home near the Shumans', said yesterday that he knew of the couple's retirement plans when he made the appointment.

"I've done that for many, many people in the Postal Service," said Bolger, now an executive with the Washington lobbying firm Gray & Co. "It isn't unusual to accommodate someone in their personal needs . . . . I didn't make any patronage appointments while I was in the job." Bolger said he appointed Joan Shuman on the advice of regional Postal Service officials in Massachusetts and knew nothing of the other candidates. "I really don't know if she was qualified or not," Bolger said. "I was taking someone else's recommendation."

But Boston attorney William Lafferty, who represents one of the unsuccessful applicants, said Shuman "never saw the inside of a post office. She didn't know a 20-cent stamp from a post card. She was always a secretary."

The appointment, Lafferty said, "had every indication that there was pre-selection and that the job was kept open for that woman."

Joan Shuman declined to comment. George Shuman said that his wife was a 10-year Postal Service veteran and that the appointment was a one-grade demotion from her job as secretary to the regional postmaster general in New York. "It's not as if she was not qualified," he said.

Shuman said he made a point of not discussing his wife's candidacy with Bolger. "I don't feel that he's shown me any favoritism at all, or my wife . . . ," he said. "I don't think I've gotten any special favors from him."

The Justice Department is looking into two incidents involving Bolger's tenure at the Postal Service. One involves findings by government investigators that Bolger participated in last year's postal-rate deliberations while negotiating a possible job with the Direct Marketing Association, a mass-mailing group whose members would be affected by rate changes.

In the other incident, Bolger awarded a $300,000 contract to a San Francisco law firm that is a client of the accounting firm of John R. McKean, chairman of the Postal Service Board of Governors. McKean had recommended the law firm to Bolger. Bolger has denied wrongdoing in both cases.

The postal job in the picturesque village of Marston Mills -- one of 29,000 such positions handed out by the postmaster general on a competitive basis -- would have drawn little attention if it had gone to a local employe. Bolger said he agreed that "if you had a local candidate right in the office who was qualified, someone familiar with the community, you're always better off."

Four employes on Cape Cod applied, including former acting postmaster Loyse Perry, a black who has challenged Shuman's selection in a race discrimination complaint. Lafferty said local postal officials judged all four candidates qualified.

Bolger had known the Shumans for years. When he was a senior postal official in New England and New York, he named George Shuman as one of his top aides. Bolger also hired Joan Sande, who married Shuman two years ago, as his secretary in New York from 1973 to 1975. When Bolger came to Washington as postmaster general, he named George Shuman postmaster in New York.

The Shumans bought the Cape Cod home last year. But George Shuman, 62, said he and his wife, 55, "weren't going to move until she was able to work up here."

During the same period, the ailing postmaster at Marston Mills applied for disability retirement, but the job was not posted until more than six months later.

Last summer, after taking two brief courses in postal management, Joan Shuman was assigned to a five-week stint as acting supervisor of a New Jersey post office. On the last day of her training, the Marston Mills job was declared vacant.

"They wanted her appointment to coincide with her husband's retirement and wanted to give her some bare minimal experience," Lafferty said. George Shuman said the timing of the vacancy was unrelated.

Bolger made the appointment three days before Christmas, after placing a letter in Shuman's file that noted her relationship to the retiring New York postmaster. "I don't doubt for a minute that people down below knew they were married," Bolger said