Scholars from colleges across the nation think and write at an estate on the York River a few miles north of Williamsburg. They live in a modern one-story building, eat together in a columned mansion and occasionally use the tennis courts and swimming pool.

During the last three years about $900,000 to operate the program, the Moton Center for Independent Studies, has come from the federal government through a special aid program for "developing colleges." The money was granted to St. Paul's College, a predominantly black institution in Lawrenceville, Va., about 100 miles southwest of Williamsburg.

But St. Paul's, which qualified for the aid as a small, isolated school, has never sent a professor to study at the Moton Center, according to information gathered by the U.S. General Accounting Office.

"That's right. None of our people have been to the center," said St. Paul's President James A. Russell Jr. "We're a small college and we can't spare them to go off for a year and write something.

"The money goes to St. Paul's and we disburse the funds . . . I can't explain that fully. We're just following the guidelines. We didn't write them."

Officials of the center, whose parent organization, the Moton Institute, is located in the Distric of Columbia, strongly defend its activities. But a GAO report cites it as an example of widespread waste and mismanagement in the government's $120-million-a-year developing college program which have made the program "largely unworkable."

Investigators for a Senate subcommitte looking into the program have released internal documents from the GAO and the U.S. Office of Education charges that millions of dollars funneled into private agencies like Moton are largely unaccounted for.

In one case, an audit report said, a Moton Institute official, Executive Vice President Leonard Dawson, used Federal grant money to pay a $32.35 bill at a topless restaurant on Connecticut Avenue.

"It was a mistake on my part," Dawson said, "I was using a company (credit) card when I should have been using my card . . . We've corrected that."

The Moton Institute and seven other private "assisting" agencies heavily involved in the federal aid program are now the subject of an audit begun in early summer by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. These private agencies are supposed to help the developing colleges to improve their faculties, courses and management.

Although colleges throughout the country receive grants under the program, much of the investigators' interest has been focused on the groups which are based in Washington. Five of them have joined in an organization known as TACTICS, which an HEW memo says has become "a multimillion dollar business with a virtual monopoly on assistance to four-year black colleges funded through (the program)."

A Senate Judiciary subcommittee headed by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has been investigating the program for the past two months and plans to hold hearings in November.

"It is obvious that the (developing colleges) program has serious, ongoing problems," Baucus said, "and we have every indication that there is going to be more uncovered."

Since 1966 Congress has appropriated about $950 million for the developing colleges program, and more than 800 schools have participated. Last year's $120-million appropriation was divided among 328 colleges.

The definition of which colleges are eligible for the program is broad. According to HEW regulations they must be "struggling for survival, . . . isolated from the main currents of academic life . . . (and) enroll . . . a significant number of economically deprived students."

Even though the law and regulations establish no racial preferences, the GAO report said federal officials have used a "predetermined funding strategy" for the majority of funds in the program. They have allocated 49 percent of the funds to predominantly black colleges, 34 Percent to colleges that are predominantly white, 9 percent for Hispanic colleges and 8 percent for colleges serving mainly American Indians.

In its report, released last February, the GAO gave no names of the colleges to which its criticisms applied.

But the GAO and HEW documents released by Baucus' subcommittee, do cite specific cases of alleged irregularities. Most deal with black colleges like St. Paul's or black-run institutions like the Moton Institute and TAC-TICS a D.C. organization which coordinates programs at about 100 black colleges.

"I couldn't validate how much racism is involved (in the criticism)," said Van S. Allen, executive director of TACTICS. "But knowing what our system is about that may well be . . . Characteristically, any time that minorities in this country get a handle on something that would do them some good, then people go after them."

In its literature, TACTICS says it has "a proven record of achievements . . . in meeting the needs of developing institutions." Its programs include summer workshops, weekend seminars, and "telephone consultations," for college administrators and faculty members, Allen said. Some of the topics offered at those sessions are long-range planning, curriculum development, admissions, and financial aid, according to TACTICS literature. d

Edward J. Brantley, director of the aid program for the U.S. Office of Education, declined to comment on the criticism.

Brantley became director in August 1978 after working three years for the Institute for Services to Education, one of the groups now being probed by the HEW audit agency.

The ISE's offices are at 2001 S St. NW, in the same building as TACTICS and Moten. Allen of TACTICS said the three groups work closely together.

A memorandum from the Office of Education's grants management division said that the overlapping of staff and office space among these groups is so prevalent that "it is virtually impossible . . . to determine how many times a . . . staff member might be paid through (federal) funds."

"Information contained in the official grant files," the memo said, "ranges from nonexistent to vague."

Originally, most of the program's federal funds were used for faculty exchange arrangements between the small colleges and more-established universities. But starting in 1971, groups such as TACTICS were formed to help developing colleges help each other.

The GAO charged these groups now "exert tremendous influence over Title III (developing colleges) programs. Some actively recruit institutions for their programs" and prepare grant applications for them.

Besides TACTICS and what it calls its five "component agencies," including Moton, the HEW Inspector General's office said it also is conducting audits of two other Washington-based "assisting agencies," the ACCTion Consortium and McManis Associates.

In 1977, an HEW memo said, the six TACTICS organizations, which are incorporated as non-profit groups, received from $9.5 million to $13.9 million from the program, although the exact amount is unclear because of poor record-keeping.

the HEW Inspector General's office said it also is auditing Knoxville College in Tennessee, where Brantley was president from 1972 to 1975.

Alfred Moye, a deputy commissioner of education who is Brantley's superior, said HEW lawyers had assured him that there was "no conflict of interest" because of Brantley's previous employment.

"We have made moves to improve management (of the program)," Moye said, including a requirement, which goes into effect next year, that colleges that hire private groups with their federal grants must conduct competitive bidding.

Moye said his agency now uses no racial formula to distribute the grants, although institutions are classified by race in internal HEW documents which indicate that the amount going to black institutions rose slightly this year.

Moye said the money going to the Moton Center through St. Paul's was "clearly under the law."

The center's president, Broadus Butler, said its purpose was to provide a setting for advanced research by "scholars from developing institutions or that would be of concern to a developing institution." He said it received about $40,000 last year from outside the developing-colleges program.

Since the center opened three years ago. Butler said it has housed 47 scholars from about 35 colleges. About two-thirds have come from colleges in the developing colleges program. Other school represented include Rutgers, Howard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of California at Berkeley.

President Russell of St. Paul's said his college has received about $90,000 a year for the book-keeping involved in disbursing the federal funds to Moton.

"We've had a long involvement with the Moton Institute," Russell said, "and when they were organizing the center, they asked if we would cooperate in this venture. Of course, we were happy to help."