Sterling Tucker, chairman of the District of Columbia City Council and a mayoral candidate, yesterday defended the council's participation in a federal jobs program that has come under fire from Labor Department investigators.

"We need you. We're going to fight to keep you," Tucker told about 60 council employes whose salaries are paid by the U.S. government under the Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA).

The U.S. Department of Labor's regional office reported Monday that an investigation had shown that the council's participation in the program was riddled with favoritism and abuse of its hiring process.

Among other things, the investigators called for terminating 37 CETA-paid employes - more than half the total - who work for council committees.

Tucker said the council operations are more similar to a state legislature than to a normal city council, and are badly understaffed. "Our staff would be greatly crippled if we had to abandon this (CETA) program," Tucker said.

The meeting amounted to a pep talk for CETA workers, worried over their future status. Tucker did not permit questions from the employes, and did not discuss any individual cases raised by the Labor Department investigators.

One case cited in the Labor Department report as an alleged abuse of CETA hiring procedures was that of Lorethea Davis, the wife of Tucker's mayoral campaign treasurer. She was hired for a CETA-paid office job and recently transferred to the city's direct payroll.