Officials at the Office of Justice Programs fight over who gets a parking space, who speaks at conventions and which official seal should be displayed on the wall. So it is perhaps not surprising that the preparation of a 1992 budget turned into a major bloodletting.

OJP's five bureau directors rebelled when their budget requests were modified by the assistant attorney general who heads OJP and, at least on organization charts, ranks above them. "This is unacceptable," one bureau director wrote. "Wrong and unauthorized," another insisted.

Unable to agree, the OJP officials sent not one, but four different budget requests to Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.

The department's higher-ups were left with the task of reconciling the assistant attorney general's request and conflicting submissions from three angry OJP bureau directors.

The budget blowout points up a basic problem at OJP that affects everything from choosing logos to hiring staff: The ostensible boss has no real power.

"The structure is pretty much unworkable," said a senior Justice Department official in an interview yesterday.

OJP, which annually dispenses about $450,000 in criminal justice and drug control grants, is divided into five bureaus. The bureau directors, all presidential appointees, report to Jimmy Gurule, an assistant attorney general.

But under congressional statute, the bureau heads have final say over who gets grants, as well as over personnel issues. Gurule has only undefined "general authority" for OJP and but one specific function -- "policy coordination."

Two recent reports by the department's inspector general and the Justice Management Division discuss the strange organizational setup at length, but suggest there may be little Thornburgh can do about it. Thornburgh's aides, citing the reports, are recommending that Thornburgh give Gurule explicit authority to set priorities for OJP and to veto grants that do not meet those priorities.

"There's got to be at least a slightly greater power in the boss, otherwise there's no reason for that person to be there," the Justice Department official said.

But the proposed Justice Department order is not likely to go over well with Congress, which exercises a continuing influence over OJP through the bureau heads. The last attempt to diminish the power of the bureau directors in 1987 backfired, the Justice Management report notes.

Instead of limiting the bureaus' authority, Congress increased it. Another attempt might lead Congress simply to divorce OJP from the department, the report warned.

The reason for keeping the bureaus semi-autonomous, congressional committees have said, is so they remain responsive to the interests of states and localities they were set up to serve.

But department officials claim members of Congress also do not want to relinquish control of a nice pot of funds. "It's pure pork," one official said.

At the least, the reports suggest, Gurule's office can better monitor how OJP's money is spent. The inspector general's report in January found none of the five bureaus do a good job of keeping track of how their funds are used. Department officials said Gurule has now doubled the number of evaluations of grant programs.

The report said the Office for Victims of Crime reimburses states up to 40 percent of the amount paid to compensate crime victims, but typically does not verify the states' claims, according to the report. The bureau overpaid one state by $110,800, the report said.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention awarded non-competitive grants without assessing how well the grantee had performed in the past, the report said.

The report also found a lack of monitoring at the National Institute of Justice, the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The November report by the Justice Management Division, requested by Thornburgh, said the atmosphere at OJP had improved somewhat since Gurule's appointment last August, but morale is still low. Turnover among OJP's roughly 350 employees runs close to 30 percent.

In 1989, Gurule's predecessor, Richard B. Abell, tried to exercise more control, in sometimes trivial ways. He succeeded only in infuriating the bureau chiefs, according to the reports.

The bureau chiefs objected to new requirements that Abell's office approve travel requests and allocate parking spaces and to an edict that Thornburgh be credited on the cover of bureau publications.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance rightly complained that Abell's office transferred about 35 percent of BJA discretionary funds to other bureaus, in violation of a congressional statute, the inspector general's report said.

Rep. Robert E. Wise Jr. (D-W. Va.), who chairs the House Government Operations subcommittee that oversees OJP, said he was encouraged by the new leadership, but troubled by the reports.

"This agency has a history of spending more time fighting over logos and parking spaces than administering drug grants," Wise said.