The chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission has slowed action against dangerous products, resolved "every statutory ambiguity" against the consumer, arbitrarily transferred staffers and allowed "infighting" nearly to paralyze the agency, lawmakers and officials charged yesterday.

"This agency is a terrible mess," Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) testified before the House subcommittee on commerce, consumer protection and competitiveness.

CPSC Chairman Terrence Scanlon has slowed the commission's most important enforcement effort by abruptly removing experienced lawyers and replacing them with attorneys who then had to get "up to speed," agency Commissioner Anne Graham testified.

The controversial personnel moves by Scanlon delayed action against all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), which have been linked to 789 deaths and an estimated 310,000 injuries requiring treatment, Graham said.

Lawmakers also sharply questioned Scanlon's exiling the commission's top enforcement officer from his job as director of the compliance division to conduct a study of field operations.

The officer, David Schmeltzer, was restored to his office Monday.

Scanlon said "management problems" were found in Schmeltzer's division and that he "temporarily detailed Mr. Schmeltzer to another assignment" while the problems were studied.

CPSC Vice Chairman Carol G. Dawson testified that she is "still not convinced that the problems attributed to the division" were Schmeltzer's fault.

Scanlon testified that one of the attorneys he took off the ATV case was planning to leave the CPSC anyway. He denied seeing a memorandum in which the lawyer said he would be willing to stay to finish the case. Graham and Dawson said they had told him of the attorney's willingness to stay.

A Scanlon aide testified that this week he approached the lawyer to see if he would be willing to return to the CPSC to participate in the ATV enforcement effort. The CPSC is asking that the vehicles be recalled as unsafe, and the Justice Department is considering whether to sue ATV makers.

"This was a classic all-star performance," said Rep. Dennis E. Eckart (D-Ohio) of Scanlon's testimony. Scanlon "changed positions like {defeated Supreme Court nominee Robert} Bork, flaunted the law like {Lt. Col. Oliver} North and lied to the committee like {former White House aide Michael} Deaver.

"The only {CPSC} management problem is between your ears," Eckart told Scanlon.

CPSC's legal authorization expired several years ago, and the strife-torn commission has not mustered support to get reauthorized. Two bills have been introduced to restructure the CPSC -- one to move against "significant" risks instead of the current standard, unreasonable risks, and to force action against ATVs and other products. A rival Republican measure would place the CPSC in the Department of Health and Human Services under a single administrator.

"Since Mr. Scanlon became chairman in July 1986, the agency has not issued any new major safety regulations and has not filed any major enforcement actions," D'Amato said. Scanlon resolves "every statutory ambiguity against the consumer, {evades} the legitimate purposes of the act" and is "apparently bent on scuttling federal product-safety regulation," he added.

D'Amato said lawmakers have a "responsibility to do everything possible to ensure that the tragedies that have befallen families such as that of Mr. David Snow and Mr. and Mrs. John Settle do not reoccur."

Snow's daughter was killed by a lawn dart earlier this year. The Settles' son, Adam, 11, was killed riding an ATV.

"Adam was not going fast; he was coming to a stop. He had been taught to ride and was supervised by three adults," Anne Settle testified. "It just flipped over and landed on top of my son's chest and crushed him.

"The company tries to say that when a child is killed it is because of bad parents, not because of bad products. People think these machines are safe because nothing is done.

"Please stop the killing," she testified. "Please do something."