The inspector general at the Government Printing Office thinks the latest managerial decision at the agency was a bad one -- but he won't be around to critique it.

Marc A. Nichols, 34, the IG since March 2003, was asked to resign this week by Public Printer Bruce R. James in a move that Nichols said was prompted by his "aggressive" investigations of possible waste, fraud and abuse.

Nichols, who was paid $144,000 a year, said James asked for -- and received -- his resignation Monday after informing him he wanted to "go in a different direction." James made it clear that the IG at the legislative branch agency serves at the pleasure of the agency head, unlike IGs at many executive branch departments who are nominated by and can be dismissed by the president, Nichols said.

"If you are going to tell IGs that they have independence, then you've got to give independence in full," Nichols said in an interview. "There was a struggle going on here at this agency about how much independence the IG should have and needs to have. And they decided that I was trying to exercise too much independence."

Nichols said James was unhappy with an IG investigation that found that a GPO contractor lacked proper documentation and was not entitled to "a significant payment" it had received. A separate inquiry into the propriety of a relationship between the agency and the consulting arm of its external auditor also was ruffling feathers, Nichols said.

James, who must inform Congress of the move, declined to discuss the reasons he asked the man he hired last year to step down. He said his decision was not related to any investigations.

James noted that he has asked Jackie Goff, whom Nichols named as his deputy a year ago, to serve as acting IG and carry on with all existing probes.

"I think the independence of the inspector general is quite important, and you certainly want someone who is aggressive in that role," James said. ". . . I can tell you categorically that this had nothing to do with an investigation or an audit."

Under a 1978 federal law, inspectors general are watchdogs appointed without regard to political affiliation. Their mission is to conduct independent, objective audits to detect and deter waste, fraud and abuse and promote efficiency in government. There are 57 IGs in federal agencies -- 29 who are appointed by the president and require Senate confirmation, and 28 who are selected by their agency heads.

Many IGs say the law should be changed to protect them from reprisals and to strengthen their independence. Some support a bill by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) that would provide IGs with fixed seven-year terms. IGs could be removed early only if they became permanently disabled, were convicted of a felony, were inefficient or for malfeasance or neglect of duty.

Cooper, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), has said it would help re-energize the role of IGs in promoting government accountability.

The legislation, introduced in November, is pending before the House Government Reform Committee, and a subcommittee held a hearing on it last month. Gaston L. Gianni Jr., the inspector general at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., testified that the IG community supports the thrust of Cooper's bill.

"We believe that removal for cause criteria would further Congress' intent to provide IGs with the independence needed to carry out our responsibilities and would better insulate IGs from undue influence," Gianni said in written testimony. He serves as vice chairman of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, an umbrella group for presidentially appointed IGs.

Nichols, who has left the GPO but will be paid his salary for two more months, has worked as a lawyer in private practice, a securities banker and an aide to then-Rep. Richard Zimmer (R-N.J.). He said he does not know what he will do next but points to his ouster at GPO as "precisely the reason why the changes in the legislation need to be made."

"This has nothing to do with an investigation or an audit," Public Printer Bruce R. James says of the departure of the inspector general he hired last year.