Florida real estate broker Dale R. Homan had his eye on a prime four-acre lot in Fort Myers last August that he thought a client could turn into a money-making bowling alley.

Local developers told Homan that the U.S. government owned the land, that it was one of thousands of vacant sites, shopping centers, office buildings and residential properties that federal officials had inherited from failed savings and loan institutions. The Fort Myers property, Homan learned, was being sold by the Federal Asset Disposition Association, or FADA.

FADA was created by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board in late 1985 to help manage the $7 billion in property it has acquired since 1980, when hundreds of S&Ls began to go under.

Started as a quasi-government company with $25 million in federal funding, FADA is owned by the bank board, the federal agency that regulates S&Ls. The bank board is FADA's only client.

FADA officials told Homan no oral offers would be accepted for the property, so Homan submitted a $750,000 offer by registered mail. Several weeks later he learned FADA already had accepted an $800,000 oral bid for the lot.

Homan said he told FADA officials he was prepared to make an $825,000 counter offer, but FADA was unwilling to reopen the bidding.

Homan decided that the procedure for buying federally owned real estate is the government's best-kept secret, one he's unlikely to crack. Although he recently learned that the land he wanted still has not been sold, he's no longer interested.

"Now I wouldn't touch one of their properties," Homan said of FADA. "It's a waste of time. You can't get information. You spin your wheels and get half-answers. I think something smells awfully funny here."

Real estate executives from across the country are complaining to Congress about FADA, saying it fails to provide even the most general information about how to make a bid and frequently gives answers that are contradictory.

FADA's mission is to streamline the sale of government property and pump the proceeds into the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp., the insolvent bank board fund that insures deposits at S&Ls and repossesses property when S&Ls fail. But to angry real estate executives and congressmen, FADA may be the proverbial cure that's worse than the disease.

Instead of efficiency and income, the critics say, FADA adds a layer of bureaucracy and cost to the government's task of selling a rapidly growing inventory of bad investments left over from failed savings and loans.

FADA often hires local lawyers and real estate companies to manage properties. Frequently it hires the same firms that were doing the work for the government before FADA was created. FADA adds its own fee to that charged by subcontractors and charges both to FSLIC.

When FADA was formed, it was touted as a semi-private corporation that would mimic the efficiencies of profit-making enterprises. But real estate executives say FADA has decreased competition in the sale of repossessed real estate, using its clout as an offspring of the government to channel business away from many private bidders.

Homan and others say FADA often sells property without competitive bidding or even public notice, a practice that makes it difficult to get the best possible price.

Critics say, too, that FADA, whose executives are among the most influential in the S&L industry, is interwoven with conflicts of interest both internal and external. Some FADA officials owe money to failed S&Ls whose property FADA now manages. Several FADA board members and employes also have long-established business relationships with companies that are bidding to buy and manage FADA properties.

The complaints led Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.) and Rep. Stephen L. Neal (D-N.C.) to launch a congressional investigation.

"Potential purchasers of property allege that FADA does not disclose properties which are for sale, does not sell properties which could be sold for a {profit} to the federal government, is generally unhelpful to legitimate consumers willing to buy these properties, and may show favoritism in determining who to notify about the availability of properties," the congressmen said.

House Banking Committee Chairman Fernand J. St Germain also is looking into "suggestions of favoritism in the hiring of subcontractors." The congressman started his probe when FADA refused to tell him how much it was paying its top executives and had to be pressured to provide the information.

"Already we have seen an agency more concerned with its bonuses and high salaries than with its primary function of recovering the maximum for the federal government from liquidated assets," said St Germain.

Although FADA was the creation of a federal agency, it was the brainchild of the S&L industry. The U.S. League of Savings Institutions, the largest S&L trade group, lobbied the bank board to form the new corporation and give it the job of selling property from failed associations. The members of FADA's board are among the S&L industry's most active and influential members.

FADA Chairman William F. McKenna is chairman of the Federal Savings and Loan Advisory Council, an industry group that advises federal regulators. He is founding partner of McKenna, Conner and Cuneo, a Los Angeles law firm that represents most of the largest S&Ls in the industry. Industry insiders claim no bank board chairman has been appointed by the White House without his -- and the league's -- approval.

One of the key arguments for moving FADA outside the government was to attract experienced real estate people who would not work for a government salary. FADA is not bound by government pay scales set by Congress, an exemption that allows FADA President and Chief Executive Roslyn Payne to earn at least $250,000 a year -- $50,000 more than the president of the United States.

Payne has a Harvard master's degree in business and, before joining FADA, was president of Genstar Pacific Development Ventures, a real estate development firm in Newport Beach, Calif. Payne's credentials helped win FADA early support in Congress.

Payne, the highest-paid federal worker, had been with FADA for only nine months at the end 1986 when she got a $75,000 bonus, St Germain said.

"FADA is in danger of becoming another runaway agency handling billions of dollars of government assets without proper supervision and control," St Germain said. Until FADA came along, FSLIC hired private companies to manage and sell property from failed savings associations. FADA was supposed to take over those functions by acting as a subcontractor to FSLIC.

That's not how it has turned out. FADA does take responsibility for managing and selling many government-owned properties, but more often than not FADA hires subcontractors to do the work. It acts as a middleman, in many cases hiring the same firms FSLIC used to hire but with a difference: FADA passes on the cost of the subcontractor and then adds a consulting charge to pay for FADA's overhead. FADA contracts show it charges FSLIC $850 a day in consulting fees and collects an annual fee of three-quarters of 1 percent of the value of the property it manages, in addition to the subcontractor costs.

Money from the property that FADA sells is to go directly to FSLIC, which is desperate for funds. FSLIC ended 1986 at least $6 billion in the red. So far no FADA profits, which were supposted to bolster FSLIC, have found their way to the fund. FADA ended 1986 with a loss of $3.6 million and industry sources say the losses grew to $5 million by the end of June. Payne said the company expects to earn a profit this year. FADA's semi-government status also is intended to exempt FADA from public disclosure laws and congressional audits that apply to regular government agencies.

FADA officials say public disclosure would undermine FADA's ability to use tough negotiating tactics in selling property. Critics say it allows FADA to operate with little if any public scrutiny.

FADA director Thomas R. Bomar agreed in a recent letter to Congress that, "No group of elected or appointed officials has any business doing the public's business in secret." But, he said, FADA does not make rules or approve applications and so should not be treated like a government agency.

But critics argue that FADA does indeed decide how the public can bid on government property and does the government's business when it accepts bids.

In a recent interview, CEO Payne said that the periodic business plans FADA submits to the bank board provide sufficient oversight to make sure FADA sticks to its purpose and treats bidders fairly.

But a bank board report earlier this year said, "FADA's performance to date in providing sound business plans in a timely manner has been unacceptable."

At the end of May, FADA managed or advised FSLIC on $5.2 billion in property and loans. About 20 percent of those assets are real estate. The remaining 80 percent are loans that FADA renegotiates, Payne said.

At the end of May, FADA says it had closed sales and completed payoffs on $37 million in loans and property and had renegotiated $295 million in loans.

Many FSLIC officials are dubious about whether FADA is saving the government any money. A March 11 memo by FSLIC staff member Lisa Miller, acting director of operations and liquidations, concluded, "The quality of FADA asset managment work is poor ... {and} FADA should not receive any further assignments until {its} performance reaches acceptable levels."

Another memo, dated March 3, from FSLIC employe Cherie Barker to Lisa Miller, says, "I also have a concern that FADA, although they are purported to be industry experts in asset management, are not doing the work themselves. Instead they have hired many layers of subcontractors to perform the management of the assets.

"If the only help we needed was from contractors ... it could have been done more cost effectively if we had hired the contractors and performed the oversight ourselves," Barker says. FADA is charging $400,000 to $500,000 every month for each of several failed S&Ls it manages, Barker says.

Bank board member Lawrence White said the tension between FADA and bank board employes stems from confusion over FADA's purpose and authority.

In an interview last month, White said that, "There were two problems that weren't resolved when FADA was created. One: What was FADA supposed to do? And two: To whom and how was FADA to report?"

He said employes of FSLIC are uneasy because FADA's boundaries "were very undefined. In a very real sense, FADA was being given control of assets but FSLIC was bearing responsibility for the outcome of their sale." In recent months FADA has been told that it reports to the head of FSLIC, so the reporting issue has been resolved, White said. "But the proper role for FADA is still being sorted out," he said.

Payne denies FADA is confused about its role. "We're here to help FSLIC," she said. She admits to some "emotional pimples" between FADA and the bank board, but says they are being cleared up. Payne says she has answered satisfactorily all inquiries from congressmen on behalf of angry consituents. She denies that potential buyers may be falling through the cracks because they find FADA too maddening to deal with. "You know, I'm not sure we've had a lot of problems," Payne said.

Many would-be buyers of government properties disagree. New Jersey real estate developer William T. Juliano last week summed up repeated efforts since January to find out how to bid on FADA property: "If someone had a house for sale and people had to get an attorney and threaten to sue before they could put in a bid, I don't think the house would sell, do you?"

William Raabe, Juliano's assistant, says he repeatedly called Tim Solomon and John Hatfield in FADA's Atlanta office during February and March about hotels and shopping centers in Florida and Louisiana, but was always told that the two men were "unavailable."

In April, Raabe says, he finally got through to Hatfield. "I told him of my problems of trying to reach {FADA officials} ... and of trying to prove ourselves as bona fide buyers to FADA," Raabe says. "He said they didn't give information to just anyone but if we were an Eddie DeBartolo {the large mall builder}, things might be different."

"Hatfield said that as far as they knew we were just John Smith from down the block," Raabe said. "I told him not everyone owns 90 malls."

Raabe said he asked for information about any of the dozens of shopping center FADA manages but was told "there was no information on any of these centers and we could not look at them."

FADA officials eventually told Juliano about 52 properties they said were valued at $180 million. The officials said they wanted to sell the properties as a package within three weeks, but told Juliano they could only give him information about eight properties, according to Juliano. "That makes no sense," he said.

Neither Hatfield nor Solomon returned telephone queries about Juliano and Raabe's complaints.

When Juliano threatened a lawsuit, top FADA officials met with him April 28, apologized for how he had been treated and promised to send him information on several properties right away. Two months later Juliano is still waiting.

"Is this what Congress intended with FADA?" said Juliano, who has placed ads in the Wall Street Journal seeking other real estate executives to join in a class-action suit against FADA. He said he's had several dozen responses.

Many congressmen are trying to sort through such complaints. "This is not the first time that I have been made aware of internal problems at FADA," Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) said in a letter to a fellow lawmaker asking for a congressional inquiry.

"Considering that FADA Chief Executive Payne is the highest paid federal employee, earning more than the President of the United States, I would hope that she could adequately explain to our subcommittee why there are internal problems within her organization," Parris wrote.

Payne said that she doesn't think FADA has any problems beyond those of any start-up company. She said she thinks the complaints come from business executives who are disappointed to learn that FADA is not going to sell property in massive quantities and at fire sale prices, a practice that lowers prices for similar property in a given market and is known as "dumping."

"People get very angry when we try to explain we're not dumping," she said.

For example, she said, a man called her recently about an office building in Dallas that FADA manages. "He said, 'Look I am ready, willing. I've got cash. I would like to buy that building.' And I said, 'At what price?' He told me and I said, 'That's not enough. You're asking for a number which I personally think is 50 percent of what that building will be worth in two years ... . And I said, 'I'm sorry that's not acceptable.'"

FADA's policy of speculating that prices will rise is very different from the one espoused by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the federal agency that insures deposits and takes over property at failed commercial banks. FDIC officials say they do not "dump," but they believe the federal government has no business gambling on real estate values to rise.

Says Bert Ely, an Alexandria banking consultant, "Waiting around for prices to recover -- that's speculation. Private sector investors playing with their own money are going to be better speculators than quasi-government employes using government money. The real question ought to be: How well can a quasi-government agency manage those assets compared to private industry?"