WASHINGTON — The Pentagon, in an unusually swift reaction to the disclosure that the Navy paid $1,800 for two ashtrays for an airplane, relieved a rear admiral and two other officers of their duties at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego Thursday.
The move, rarely taken against senior officers and equally rare in procurement matters, was announced by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger only moments after the three officers had been told about the decision. The defense secretary was described by aides as "furious" and "very angry" about the price paid for the ashtrays and about the purchase of a socket wrench for $404.
More Ashtrays Bought
But the decision left some Navy officers thinking that "Weinberger is conducting a whitewash and has just ramrodded three naval officers," according to one Navy officer at the Pentagon. He said that none of the officers involved in the decision were assigned to the base at the time the purchases were made in 1981. But Pentagon spokesman Michael I. Burch said that similar ashtrays were purchased for about $660 each after the three men reported for duty at Miramar.
"There was no excuse for it," Weinberger said. "The item was identified specifically, and the outrageous price was identified."
He said that two persons had signed the purchase order. A Navy spokesman said that such documents usually are handled by low-ranking servicemen or civilians, but no action against other personnel has been announced.
"Nobody paid the slightest attention to the basic idea that the price bore no relationship whatever to the value of the item procured," Weinberger said at a news conference, describing the purchase as "that particularly silly transaction." He suggested banning smoking aboard naval airplanes or using "old mayonnaise jars" as ashtrays.
The three officers were identified by the Navy as Rear Adm. Thomas J. Cassidy Jr., commander of the Navy's Pacific fighter fleet; Capt. Gary E. Hakanson, the commanding officer of the Miramar Naval Air Station, and Cmdr. Jerry L. Fronabarger, the air station's supply officer.
Hakanson said in a telephone interview from his home that he was "devastated" that he had been relieved of his command.
"The ashtray thing was before my time," Hakanson said. "I just don't have the facts as to why I was relieved. . . . I just was informed by telephone. It's very much a surprise to me. I'm standing by, waiting to find out what the rationale is."
Hakanson, a 26-year Navy veteran, assumed command of the air station in April, 1983. Cassidy, a 22-year veteran, took command of the Pacific Fleet's Fighter Airborne Early Warning Wing in August, 1983, assuming responsibility for all F-14 fighter and E-2 early warning squadrons in the Pacific. The Navy said that details of Fronabarger's 18-year career were not available.
On Tuesday evening, the Pentagon had said that, if warranted, punitive steps would be taken against those responsible for the purchases "after a full investigation." Only hours after Weinberger's announcement Thursday, the Navy said that an investigation was being conducted.
The Navy officer at the Pentagon, complaining that the step was taken "without any due process of law," tied the move to Weinberger's difficulty in obtaining congressional approval for Pentagon budget requests.
"I think it's kind of smelly. What it really smacks of is Washington politics, because Weinberger has a credibility problem. That problem is not the admiral's and captain's problem. They're trying to run that base as best they can," he said.
The ashtrays were purchased from Grumman Aerospace Corp. of Bethpage, N.Y., which has said that it would refund $4,270 for the cost of seven ashtrays for the E-2C Hawkeye airplane.
Burch, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, said that, although the first purchases were made in 1981, they continued "into this year."
"These guys may not be guilty of the original sin, but they kept on ordering them," he said.
The disclosure about the ashtrays and socket wrench is the latest in a series of purchases for airplanes that have raised questions about the Pentagon's procurement practices and its control over prices charged by suppliers.
In recent months, it has been disclosed that the Navy paid $640 for a toilet seat cover for P3-C Orion submarine-hunter airplanes, but the price was eventually reduced to $100. In addition, $7,622 was paid for a coffee maker and $435 for a hammer.
Staff writer David Freed, in San Diego, contributed to this story.