The Justice Department's No. 2 official and the head of its criminal division resigned in unison Tuesday in what associates said was an effort to distance themselves from allegations of impropriety and wrongdoing involving Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Arnold I. Burns and Assistant Atty. Gen. William F. Weld were said to be frustrated over "harm to the department" resulting from nine months of criminal investigations of Meese's conduct in office with no sign that he would resign or of any other quick resolution to the problem.
Burns and Weld went to the White House directly with their resignations before informing Meese, a marked departure from government practice. The two officials met with White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. at his home around 7 a.m. Tuesday and gave him their resignations "in escrow."
Meese Called Shocked
They then took their decision to the usually unflappable Meese, who, sources said, was "shocked." After their meeting with the attorney general, Weld called presidential counsel A. B. Culvahouse, who attended the session at Baker's house, and asked that the resignations be submitted officially.
A White House spokesman immediately reaffirmed President Reagan's full confidence in Meese, the longest serving of the California aides who followed Reagan to Washington. Other than the President, however, Meese appears to have few allies within the White House. And many in Congress--including two Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee--voiced great concern over the resignations.
Burns, who built a thriving New York law practice and joined the department only 18 months ago, first began discussing the possibility of resigning in January, according to department officials. He was said to have become increasingly fearful that he would be tarnished by criticism of Meese's conduct.
"He came here with a reputation, and he wants to leave with it intact," one official said of Burns, who has no immediate job plans.
As for Weld, he was convinced that "the top guy had to go, and when the top guy didn't, he did," one source said.
The departure of Burns and Weld, which marks the biggest department shakeup since the resignations 15 years ago during the Watergate scandal of Atty. Gen. Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Atty. Gen. William D. Ruckelshaus in what later became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre," is certain to intensify pressure on Meese to step aside.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, demanded an explanation for the resignations and said that the committee might hold a special hearing if none is forthcoming.
"I believe I am entitled to an explanation, and the American people are entitled to an explanation," Specter said, terming the resignations "extraordinary and unprecedented in the history of the (Justice) Department."
Even Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S. C.), former chairman of the committee and usually the Administration's point man on Justice Department issues, said he was "greatly concerned about morale at the department . . . by the resignation of these two men and of four additional officials" who resigned.
Resigning with the two senior officials were Burns' two top aides, Associate Deputy Attys. Gen. Randy Levine and Boykin Rose, and Weld's assistants, Mark E. Robinson and Jane E. Serene.
The resignation letters of Burns and Weld made no mention of Meese or the four criminal investigations of him being conducted by independent counsel James C. McKay.
'Highlights of Life'
Burns, describing his 18 months at the department as "one of the highlights of my life," said: "Unfortunately, I have regretfully concluded that I must return to private life at this time." His resignation is effective April 22.
Weld, who served as U.S. attorney in Boston for five years before coming to Washington to head the criminal division, cited his "responsibility of seeing that justice be done without fear or favor." His resignation took effect Tuesday night.
In the 30-minute meeting with the attorney general, Burns was said to have detailed the difficulty of operating under a cloud that he said was caused by Meese's ties to E. Robert Wallach, a San Francisco personal injury lawyer and longtime Meese friend.
Wallach and Meese's former investment adviser have been indicted on federal racketeering and conspiracy charges that include allegations that they accepted money from scandal-torn Wedtech Corp. to influence Meese.
Among other things, Meese is under investigation for his role in the Wedtech matter, for helping Wallach obtain U.S. support for a $1-billion Iraqi pipeline project, for highly profitable but unusual investments while attorney general and for actions benefiting the so-called Baby Bell telephone companies while he held stock in the firms.
Bribery Plan Described It is the pipeline aspect of the investigation that has led to the most serious allegations involving the attorney general. In a key 1985 memo to Meese, first disclosed publicly by The Times earlier this year, Wallach described a plan for an Israeli guarantee not to interfere with the pipeline that involved payments to the Israeli Labor Party--a proposal that has led McKay to look into possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits U.S. citizens from bribing foreign officials.
The departures of Burns and Weld came amid increasing signs that McKay's investigations are unlikely to result in charges being sought against Meese. Instead, it appears more likely that McKay will issue reports sharply critical of Meese's conduct for giving the appearance of impropriety.
An Administration source said that other resignations are likely at the Justice Department, with Solicitor General Charles Fried as a leading candidate. Fried would become the next ranking official under Meese when Associate Atty. Gen. Stephen S. Trott leaves on April 15 to join the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
"I have not made any plans or decisions," Fried said in an interview from home, where he was recuperating from flu and preparing for a Supreme Court argument today. "I haven't thought this through really at all."
With Meese removed from more than 20 matters before the department, Fried would be called on to substitute for Meese until successors for Burns or Trott are confirmed.
If Fried resigned, the next in line would be William Bradford Reynolds, assistant attorney general for civil rights and Meese's chief adviser as counselor to the attorney general.
No New Information
No single precipitating factor could be found for the decision by Burns and Weld, with sources close to both insisting that they knew of no new information involving Meese having been developed by McKay or Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent counsel investigating the Iran-Contra scandal.
"There was no magic moment," one official said. "It was nine months of a lot of irritation . . . ."
Weld, who is interested in pursuing Republican politics in Massachusetts, was described by friends as becoming convinced that failing to step away from Meese would prove a nearly insurmountable burden in that liberal state.
On a recent trip there, Democratic officeholders and political figures told Weld that they could not wait for his return so they could raise the Meese ties if he tries for public office.
Weld, who like Burns has considerable wealth, plans to spend time with his wife and children and fish through the summer, with the possibility of practicing some private law. Then he hopes to teach at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard for a semester.