The State Department Federal Credit Union has operated at a loss since last year and has been placed on a "problem list" by federal regulators, according to credit union officials.

The federal action is based on the credit union's overall financial condition, but it comes at a time when the credit union administration is under attack from some of its members for the amount of money it spends on receptions and trips for employes and board members to conferences in places such as Las Vegas, Munich and Paris.

The credit union, which has $166 million in assets and 36,000 member accounts, reported a loss of $346,095 on total income of $8 million for the first half of this year. Last year the credit union, with a total income of $15.7 million, lost $224,200.

Examiners from the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), which regulates federally chartered credit unions, told the board of the credit union in a meeting July 27 that the member-owned institution has been placed under special surveillance, according to Edward N. Gulli, general manager of the credit union.

At the time, the examiners raised the possibility that the NCUA could take over the credit union or merge it with another one if the board, which includes Gulli, does not act in a more "prudent" manner, Gulli said.

"We are now under surveillance, and we must report to them every week. They are working with us to assure that the board overcomes its unwillingness to act quickly, and they will review what we do every week," he said. Because of the $100,000 in federal insurance on each credit union account, he added, "There's no danger of anyone losing anything."

At the same time, Gulli said, NCUA examiners said the credit union "would have no problem" if board members "took the steps to turn it around and become very profitable again."

Some 7 percent of the 11,200 federally regulated credit unions in the United States are on the NCUA's "problem" or "watch" list, according to Layne L. Bumgardner, director of supervision and examinations at the NCUA. He said the list includes credit unions which require special attention because of their financial condition or failure to comply with laws.

Gulli quoted federal examiners as saying the State Department credit union's main problem was that it had pursued more deposits without being able to invest all the money it already had in high-yielding loans. Failure to make loans costs credit unions money because other investments into which they could put their assets do not produce as high a return.

The examiners also criticized as too high the total compensation paid to credit union employes--including officers, tellers, clerks and secretaries-- but did not criticize the directors' travel or other expenses, Gulli said.

To get a quick infusion of cash, the credit union plans to sell an office building it owns in Arlington for $6.6 million, Gulli said. In addition, he said, it is moving to add charges for specialized services to members, to reduce rates paid on dividends, and to begin several new loan programs.

In an effort to conserve the credit union's cash, Gulli said the board has voted to stop traveling first class, which was previously allowed on any trips of more than three hours' duration, and to suspend any travel until the end of the year. However, he said travel to conferences is a necessary part of credit union activities and will be resumed.

During 1982, the credit union spent $51,628 to send board members--who are State Department employes performing the credit union work as volunteers, receiving no extra salary--to conferences in places including Paris and Munich, The credit union also spent $208,353 for publicity and promotion, $23,960 for other board expenses, $22,853 for travel by employes and $9,826 for food for tellers and board members that year, according to an internal breakdown of credit union expenses by its auditors, Deloitte Haskins & Sells.

"They spend money like water on trips, and they say they don't have the money to hire additional tellers or pay better interest. They think we're dumb," said Mary Drakoulis, an employe in State's Freedom of Information office who was one of the original organizers of protest against the credit union management.

An examination of credit union records shows, among other expenses:

* A $2,395 reception in Scottsdale, Ariz., Dec. 5, 1981, for local credit union members, described by Gulli as part of an effort to attract more deposits from retired State Department employes living in the area. The bill, from Marriott's Camelback Inn, included $1,059 for 451 drinks, $94 for 54 glasses of wine, $82 for 30 cordials, $252 for 84 Irish coffee drinks and $126 for mints. It could not be determined how many people attended the reception.

* A $2,520 bill from the Washington restaurant La Maison Blanche for a going-away dinner given April 22, 1982, for a retiring credit union board member. Gulli estimated the attendance at the dinner at around 30 people, but said he was not sure of the exact number.

* A June 26 to July 1, 1982, trip to a credit union industry conference in Las Vegas by six board members and three of their spouses costing $3,099 in hotel expenses at the Las Vegas Hilton and $9,520 in first class airfare. Five board members and a credit union employe traveled to Las Vegas again for a similar conference in May of this year.

A Sept. 9 to Sept. 15, 1982, trip to Hawaii by Gulli and his executive assistant, Charles G. Hardin Jr., with their wives, to attend an industry conference. The cost of the trip and lodging at the Hilton Hawaiian Village was $2,030.

Harvey J. Baine, the NCUA's regional director, said, "I don't remember any exception in our examination because of excessive travel . I would assume, based on our review, that they are within the guidelines that are reasonably expected for a credit union of that size . . . If the members don't like what is going on, they can vote for new management. We don't run it. We make sure they are within the law."

Edgar F. Callahan, chairman of the NCUA, said this week, "Maybe a sharper look needs to be taken at the board and its expenses based on its bottom line."

Gulli, a former State Department director of financial systems management, said the trips to industry conferences and seminars help board members and managers, who often are not trained in financial matters, do their jobs better. Such travel, he said, is "an ordinary and necessary business expense of credit unions."

As volunteers, Gulli said, the board members are "interested, hardworking, and eager to learn. However, to obtain information about what is happening with other credit unions within the financial world, and with other, related, professional organizations, they must be able to associate with their peers at conferences and training sessions arranged for this purpose," he said. Specifically, they must "have a good grasp of such diverse subjects as strategic planning, cost-effectiveness, spread management, marketing, cash management, pricing, investment policy, data processing, and much, much more"

NCUA's chairman, Callahan, said the question of what is or is not a proper level of expenses is up to the members to decide. "We do not usually get down to splitting hairs as to which expense is appropriate. If it is a problem institution, I'm sure their expenses are being scrutinized," said Callahan, who is a member of the credit union.

Referring to the travel by board members, Elizabeth A. Gibbons, the vice president of the credit union, said, "I never really questioned it. It seemed like that was what was done."

"Credit unions are supposed to be run for the members," said Lawrence Connell, Callahan's predecessor at the NCUA under the Carter administration. "I am concerned about lavish parties, because it's difficult to show a legitimate business purpose," he said. Connell, now president of a mutual savings bank in Seattle, said traveling to conferences could help educate board members, but the number and cost of the trips should be disclosed to members at annual meetings.

"To me," he said, "the best enforcement is for the membership to vote on whether to continue the management. I would think the members should have reasonable access to the records of the credit union."

Drakoulis said she first questioned the credit union's operation when she became incensed last year at half-hour waits to deposit checks on payday. She called Gulli, who suggested that she write a letter with her questions and complaints. Convinced she had gotten a brush-off, Drakoulis and George J. Mattis, chief of State's directives management staff, took their complaints to the State Department, but were told that State has no direct authority over the credit union.

The two employes, along with Joel T. Miltenberger, a former State Department employe, formed a committee which circulated a petition signed by 600 people. It asked for more information and an improvement in services. This year, the committee ran candidates for the 1983 election of directors but lost.

"They were allowed to vent their anger, they did not have enough people to support them," said Gulli. Acknowledging that the credit union lines can be "hellish," he said, "Our lines on payday are always out of the office and down the hall." But he said the lines are going to be long during peak periods.

When a vacancy came up on the board after this spring's elections, the board appointed C. Melvin Sonne, a retired Foreign Service officer who is one of the dissident credit union members, to a one-year term.

After The Washington Post began making inquiries into travel and expenses of credit union board members, the Federal Bureau of Investigation contacted at least one former employe of the credit union to interview her about alleged thefts of documents or computer tapes from the credit union.

Gulli confirmed that the FBI has been asked to look into alleged thefts of documents or computer tapes from the credit union, but he declined to elaborate on exactly what he believed had happened or to say when the investigation was requested.

"There was a violation of a financial institution's records that then becomes a matter just beyond whistle-blowing," Gulli said. "I don't know if it's a preliminary look-see or a full-scale investigation."

An FBI spokesman confirmed that at least one former employe of the credit union was scheduled to be interviewed at the bureau's Alexandria office Monday. The meeting was postponed when she asked for time to hire a lawyer.

"We were asked to investigate. The FBI is investigating," the spokesman said.

Credit unions are nonprofit organizations originally formed to help employes get loans when banks did not make consumer loans. The industry now has $93 billion in assets nationally and 48 million members. The State Department credit union is 46th largest among 19,630 credit unions in the country.

Besides the State Department, the State Department credit union serves employes stationed at the Fort McNair Army base in the District and other agencies, including the NCUA, the credit union regulatory body.

Gulli became general manager of the credit union in 1981. He is an employe of the credit union, not of the federal government, but his contract provides for salary increases based on raises recommended to keep federal workers on a par with private industry.

Federal officials make those recommendations annually, and the president decides how much federal workers should receive, an amount that in recent years has been less than the commission's recommendation. Because Gulli's salary increases are based on the recommendations, not the president's decision, he got a raise last year of 18.47 percent, while federal workers got a raise of 4 percent.

Gulli currently makes $89,000 a year, about $9,000 more than Secretary of State George P. Shultz. He said that since he is not a federal worker, his salary should not be compared with the secretary of state's. He pointed to a recent industry study showing the median salary of executives employed by the top quarter of government credit unions with assets of $80 million or more is $84,502.

"I don't have a chauffeur-driven car or a plane at my disposal," he said, referring to Shultz. He said he got a 15 percent increase in lieu of health insurance and a pension plan.

Gulli said in a prepared statement that the real story of the credit union is not the compensation or travel expenses paid him or board members, but that "the real story is how a few unprincipled zealots can twist and distort data to unjustly attack individuals and an entire organization; how they can undermine the integrity of employes and encourage them to violate the terms of their employment."