Griffin Bell - the former U.S. attorney general who died yesterday - ignited a huge national controversy 31 years ago when he fired Philadelphia's U.S. attorney, David Marston.

As The Inquirer reported at the time, "Marston's firing was seen as the most extreme example of attempts by those in high official power to interfere with efforts to combat public corruption."

In 1976, not surprisingly, the city and state had plenty of corrupt politicians, but investigations created problems for locals in power. There had not been aggressive investigations in a decade.

Marston, 34, was sworn in with six months left in the Ford administration. He named political corruption as his number-one priority. He teamed with the FBI and brought corruption charges against two local Democratic congressmen, Joshua Eilberg of Philadelphia and Daniel Flood of Wilkes-Barre. Eilberg pleaded guilty in 1979, and Flood pleaded guilty a year later.

Jimmy Carter, the post-Watergate president, campaigned on a promise of honesty and pledged that he would take politics out of the selection of U.S. attorneys.

But Carter was taking immense heat from Philadelphia-area Democrats who wanted Marston out.

When The Inquirer broke the story in January 1978 that Bell was about to fire Marston, public outrage swept across the nation.

"Bell is a really decent guy, but the pressure from the Philadelphia Democratic delegation on the White House and him is so intense he feels he has to take some action - that's just the political reality as he sees it," a source told The Inquirer at the time.

Bell claimed this was not an attempt to obstruct justice. He told the press that, "I have nothing against Marston. He's a fine young man. But this is the political system in this country. We will change the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia when we find someone that is the equal of Mr. Marston in character, ability and integrity - or better."

Despite the controversy, Marston was replaced by Peter Vaira, a career Justice Department lawyer who continued with aggressive investigation of corrupt politicians.

Marston went on to a successful law practice after unsuccessful runs for governor and mayor in 1978 and 1979. He is still a practicing lawyer in Philadelphia.

"He badly underestimated the pervasiveness of corruption in the Philadelphia area," Marston, reached in Florida yesterday, said of Bell. "And he underestimated the extent that targets of investigations would go to change the investigations. I thought he was naive as to that particular problem."

"Having said all that," Marston added, "reading assessments of his career . . . those who knew him well thought he was an honorable man, and I have no reason to think otherwise."

Contact staff writer Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com.