When the Golden Globe nominations are announced later this month, few people will know that the power behind the picks is a group called the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Fewer still will know that most of its 88 active members are not full-time journalists, but part-time freelancers for small publications in places like Lithuania and Bangladesh, and include a college professor, a retired engineer, a man who runs an "auto referral service," and another who until recently sold appliances in Burbank.

Yet this small group, many of whose members are in their retirement years, wields an extraordinary kind of power. Since the awards ceremony -- which draws an impressively star-studded crowd -- started being tele vised regularly in the late 1980s, it has become a major publicity tool for Hollywood studios, with prizes touted in ads all over the country. Furthermore, the Globes, which are award ed in January, have become a kind of advance team for the bigger, brassier Oscars.

But while the Academy Awards are selected by more than 5,000 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Globes are picked by a few dozen movie lovers who enjoy an endless stream of gifts (silver money clips for last year's "Casino," yellow bomber jackets for "Apollo 13"), hotel rooms and free meals from major studios. Similarly, the in come generated for the HFPA by the telecast (next year's will be Jan. 19) provides generously for its members -- air fare to out-of-town promotional trips, monthly lunches at the Beverly Hilton, $200 annual subscriptions to the Hollywood Report er and expense-paid trips to film fes tivals abroad.

Members don't have to work too hard at their journalism. Four articles a year are required -- be they long, cogent analyses or short blurbs taken from transcripts of press conferences with movie stars -- to maintain active membership in the HFPA. Yet few representatives of major foreign publications -- like the Times of London or Le Monde in France -- are admitted to the group.

Indeed, a correspondent for Le Monde said her application for membership has been rejected several times.

The HFPA's cozy relationship with the studios and stars it confers awards on, and the dubious journalistic credentials of many of its members, have been an open secret in Hollywood for years. But few are willing to talk about it on the record. The studios are loath to jeopardize the marketing tool they have found in the Golden Globes, while actors, directors and producers are afraid of jeopardizing their chances at winning.

But judging from internal documents made available to The Washington Post and more than four dozen interviews with current and former HFPA members, press agents and studio executives, the system is at best a mutual admiration society. At worst, according to critics, it's another way in which the public is fooled -- into believing that a Golden Globe is a symbol of real merit, and that it is bestowed by qualified, impartial critics without fear or favor.

"This is a racket that does more harm than good," says Howard Suber, co-chair of the film production program at the University of California at Los Angeles. "There are millions of people who watch and think this is something other than a corrupt little band. They think it means something, and of course it doesn't."

Even one HFPA member expressed similar concerns in an internal memo in 1994. "The fuse' of the legal bomb' is burning," wrote Ika Panajotovic, questioning the HFPA's membership and voting standards. "If any of the major studios call fault' on the HFPA for various favors to certain studios, their films or countries, our association could have a huge lawsuit, lose its credibility and, possibly, its legal existence." The Members

Some members of the HFPA are well-respected foreign entertainment journalists, like Alessandra Venezia, who writes for Italy's weekly Panorama and the daily L'Unita, and Scott Orlin, who writes for Germany's Cinema magazine.

But at least 30 of the 88 listed in the HFPA's membership book are freelance writers for obscure publications in such minuscule markets for American films as Lithuania, Bangladesh and Egypt. For them, journalism is a part-time hobby. Outgoing HFPA President Aida Takla O'Reilly is a film professor at Cal State, Los Angeles, and chair of the pan-African studies department. Mahfouz Doss, another board member, made his living as an engineer until 1978, and has lived mainly off his investments since then. "I write about two dozen articles a year" for Egyptian newspapers, he says. Tony Ponce, listed as a writer for Costa Rican and Czech publications, has a marketing company and runs an "auto referral service," a business he declined to define. Munawar Hosain, from Bangladesh, recently left his job selling appliances at a Burbank Circuit City for another in "TV production," according to a cousin. Even Panajotovic identifies himself as a lawyer, director and producer, and only when prodded says that he is also a journalist. "I am a PR writer. I am everything," he says. "I am in the motion picture business."

Many other members are retired (three members died this year, several are ill, and there are two active members in their nineties), having joined the 54-year-old organization decades ago. In addition to the four articles or tapes per year every member must produce to maintain active status in the organization, each must provide six articles to the Motion Picture Association of America to qualify to vote on the Golden Globes and receive promotional material from the studios.

But not all do. This year three people -- Dagmar Dunlevy, Howard Lucraft and Douglas Thompson -- were dropped from the MPAA's list of active members because they did not produce even four articles. Two of them were reinstated for 1997, but Lucraft again did not qualify, nor did active members Frances Jeane Appel and Maureen Dragone. O'Reilly herself was dropped from the MPAA's list of eligible voters in 1990 for the same reason.

So how many of the HFPA's 88 active members actually vote on the awards? Neither the HFPA nor Ernst & Young, the accounting firm that tallies the votes, would say. But internal HFPA documents show that in 1994, only 63 of the 85 then-active members were eligible to vote on an awards-related matter.

"The HFPA has about 25 very good, important journalists -- wonderful, good writers," says Mirjana Van Blaricom, who was HFPA president in 1992 and 1993 and was previously on its accreditation committee. The rest, she says, "may write four or even five articles {a year}. I don't think that makes them journalists." Van Blaricom was suspended from the HFPA for having sent members videotapes of a movie from her native Yugoslavia to consider for an award; she recently dropped a suit against the association for harassment, unprofessional conduct and restraint of trade. Van Blaricom has also started a rival organization, the International Press Academy.

"I'm not going to respond to anything Mirjana Van Blaricom said," said the HFPA's current president, Phil Berk, who works for a South African syndicate, the Argus Group. But studio publicists support Van Blaricom's contention that fewer than half of the HFPA's members generally attend the screenings and news conferences set up for them. Those who do go to news conferences are treated with unusual deference; movie stars must pose for photographs with every member of the association after the question-and-answer period. It is one of the group's "requirements," publicists say.

In 1993 director Rob Reiner said there was something "unkosher" about all this. "The main thrust seems to be an elaborate scheme to have their pictures taken with you," the New York Times quoted him as saying. "Sure I want to promote my movie, but I don't want to waste my time with people who are just pushing for a photo op." Still, Reiner has since given two press conferences to the HFPA to promote subsequent films. He declined to comment for this article.

O'Reilly does not deny that many members of the HFPA have day jobs, but says it is the only way for them to make ends meet. "There's nothing wrong with that," she says. "To make them out as not being journalists anymore is erroneous." The personal photo sessions are done so that members can prove to their editors that they did not fabricate their interviews with movie stars, she says. No one, however, is required to provide clippings to show that the interviews were later published.

An NBC spokeswoman issued a statement that said, in part: "The Golden Globe Awards presentations have been a favorite among viewers for many years. . . . NBC has been pleased with Dick Clark Productions and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association who produce the show for the network." The Perks

In 1981, members of the HFPA were flown to Las Vegas for a few days of entertainment and fun as guests of Meshulam Riklis, a producer and businessman. At the time, Riklis was married to Pia Zadora, an actress as well known for her wealthy husband as for her talent. A few weeks later, Zadora won the Golden Globe Award for "new female star of the year" for her work in an eminently forgettable flop called "Butterfly."

Al Pacino won the best-actor award for "Scent of a Woman" in 1993, shortly after HFPA members had flown to New York on a promotional trip for the movie that included interviews with him. Although it is not clear whether the HFPA or the studio paid for the trip, the coincidence caused the association considerable embarrassment at the time.

While these incidents are well known in the industry, members of the HFPA and even the embittered Van Blaricom say the organization is not influenced by gifts or trips its members receive. "Can someone convince you that an actor is good when he's not? To me it's unthinkable," says Venezia, the Italian journalist. "Do you think if you invite me to dinner I will vote for you? I would be a really bad journalist or critic if I did."

But it is also true that studios and some stars shower the HFPA members with gifts and personal attention in an attempt to curry favor. Sharon Stone, known as a good friend of the association, sent a handwritten thank-you note to each member after her news conference to promote the opening of "Casino." She later won the best-actress award for her performance as a gangster's moll. One industry professional attending the ceremony watched as two HFPA members approached the film's publicist as the award was announced. "You see, we told you it was going to happen," she heard them say.

Some studios, such as Twentieth Century Fox, hold annual dinners or other events in the group's honor around the end of the year. Others send fruit baskets and film-related trinkets -- some valuable, like the silver money clip -- around nomination and voting time. Pre-nomination screenings are always accompanied by lunch or dinner.

But even outside awards season, the benefits of membership in the HFPA are substantial. The studios hold exclusive HFPA screenings and news conferences with directors and stars for every major film; members who have not attended are entitled to transcripts of the interview sessions. The association usually pays air fare to out-of-town promotional events, while the studios usually pay for lodging. While most publicity events take place in Hollywood, some junkets are staged in locations related to the movie (Houston for "Apollo 13," San Francisco for "Escape From Alcatraz") -- and include interviews with the stars and director. (While it is common for foreign journalists or writers for small domestic publications to accept travel and lodging from studios, most major news organizations bar such practices.)

Internal HFPA financial documents show that the association invites its members to monthly luncheons at the Beverly Hilton at an average cost of about $5,000 per outing. It also pays for air fare, hotels and meals when members attend film festivals abroad and even pays for tickets to local plays. The nonprofit, tax-exempt organization also donates money to charities and arts organizations -- last year it gave to the American Film Institute, the American Foundation for AIDS Research (which Sharon Stone chairs) and the Sundance Film Festival. All of this is paid for by the NBC telecast of the Golden Globes, which earns the association approximately $700,000, according to Van Blaricom. NBC entered into a five-year agreement to broadcast the awards last January, when 18 million Americans tuned in; TBS aired the ceremony in previous years.

With perks like these, it's a wonder that the association is not flooded with new members every year. But the HFPA accepts no more than five new members annually, and any member can veto a newcomer's application in voting done by secret ballot.

"I tried to apply four or five times," says Claudine Mulard, a full-time correspondent for Le Monde. Her application "was accepted, there was a vote, and I don't know what happened. They send you a polite letter {of rejection}, but they don't tell you anything."

Jeff Hayward, correspondent for the New Zealand Herald, the country's largest daily, wrote a letter of protest to the association after his application was rejected in 1994 for the second time. "You represent foreign correspondents in Hollywood as a whole, yet you act like a clique, which is hardly ethical," the letter read. "I feel you should be a truly professional organization open to all who legitimately meet the criteria of being a member of the Hollywood foreign press, or you should not exist at all."

Indeed, the association's practices have earned it the derision of many respected journalists. "I didn't want to be involved in an organization which had such a terrible reputation," says Joan Goodman, who writes for several British and American newspapers and magazines and was solicited to join the HFPA in the 1980s. "Years ago a publicist blatantly said to me, If you would join Hollywood Foreign Press, I could count on you to vote for my guy for an award.' We laughed, but he meant it quite seriously, I'm sure." The Big Picture

Here in Hollywood, many say the Golden Globe Awards are but a symptom of the collaborative relationship between the media and the entertainment industry, in which journalists are not independent arbiters but are considered part of the promotional process. And that is doubly true for the HFPA. "If there is a problem with the HFPA, it's because it is a mirror image of how Hollywood treats the press," says Michael Bygrave, a veteran entertainment writer for London's Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph. "It is the fault of the industry, which has never, and will never, admit that the press has any role as an independent force or watchdog. They regard the press like rich people regard their butlers -- they do everything they can to manipulate and control it."

But Suber, the film professor, believes there is something more subversive at work -- the willing participation of a network and the major studios in a gilded charade.

"The corruption is the network that puts it on and presents it as major event. The corruption comes from the studios that help make it a major event by turning out the stars," he observes. "For some pipsqueak band of 88 stringers who don't represent anything" to hold the awards, he says, "is damaging to any kind of fair assessment of the importance of film." CAPTION: Sharon Stone thanked each member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association after a news conference to promote "Casino." They later gave her a Golden Globe award. CAPTION: The Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Golden Globe Award.