WASHINGTON — One day after a White House statement said he "will do the right and proper thing," NASA Administrator James M. Beggs Wednesday took a leave of absence from his post to fight criminal charges of fraud levied against him by a federal grand jury.
President Reagan, questioned about Beggs at a news conference announcing the departure of his national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, rejected a reporter's suggestion that the charges against the NASA chief indicated a breakdown in the Administration's process of screening appointees.
Didn't 'Enrich Him'
"We're talking about something that is supposed to have happened prior to government service and, also, if you read it correctly, not something in which he in any way was doing anything--if he was doing this at all--that would redound to his benefit personally or enrich him in any way," Reagan said.
The indictment against Beggs alleges wrongdoings involving federal contracts when he was executive vice president and a director of General Dynamics Corp. in St. Louis, before he was appointed director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in July, 1981.
In "reluctantly acceding" to Beggs' request for a leave, Reagan took the opportunity to praise him for having "revitalized" the space agency.
Beggs is credited with restoring NASA's space shuttle program to a sound financial footing. When he took office, the program was more than two years behind schedule and a billion dollars over its projected cost. NASA now has four shuttles that soon will begin operating toward its goal of 24 flights a year.
"I don't know of anyone who could have done a finer job than he has done and is doing at NASA," Reagan said.
A White House statement said the President has asked Beggs to "assist temporarily in the orderly transition of his responsibilities to his colleagues." There was no clarification of how long that might take, especially as NASA's second in command, William R. Graham, has only been in his job eight days.
Graham previously was chairman of the Administration's general advisory committee on arms control and disarmament.
Reagan seemed eager to dispel any notion that Beggs was stepping aside because of White House pressure or displeasure with his performance. He indicated that a leave of absence is necessary only because the legal complexities of the charges against Beggs will require his full attention.
However, White House political advisers were less charitable in their comments. They were openly relieved that Beggs had taken the hint, delivered publicly Tuesday by White House spokesman Larry Speakes, that Beggs would do "the right and proper thing." In the sensitive code language of Washington political circles, this was a clear signal to Beggs that he should leave his post.
Although those officials denied that there was any direct pressure on Beggs, they said that Reagan would not have stood by him if he had chosen to stay in office while conducting his legal fight.
Unlike former Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan, who had Reagan's unswerving support for months before he finally took a leave of absence to fight a similar federal indictment, Beggs has no political ties to Reagan. He did not work in any of the President's campaigns, nor did he raise money for him, as Donovan did.
In addition, one adviser said that Beggs was noted for running "a very independent shop" that was not responsive to the White House when it came to political appointments. "There aren't any political chips," this adviser said.
On Tuesday, a day after the indictment against Beggs and three executives of General Dynamics was handed down, the Navy responded by barring the defense supplier from any new federal contracts until the cases are settled.