Over the years, I've made no secret of the fact that I consider whistleblowers the unsung heroes of the federal government. They risk their careers to expose waste, fraud and mismanagement in the bureaucracy, and they usually go unrewarded.

In some cases, a whistleblower's patriotism and integrity end in personal ruin, as the overpaid underachievers close ranks against the "traitor" who dared speak the truth. This is the story of an honest public servant who refused to be bullied by the bureaucrats whose misconduct he had exposed. They got him, and they got him good.

The whistleblower in question is Philip Vargas, a 48-year-old son of Mexican migrant workers who managed to put himself through Harvard Law School and earn a doctorate in sociology despite the handicap of never having finished high school. His credentials got him a job with the Federal Paperwork Commission, where he was assigned to direct a study on openness in government.

Vargas did his job conscientiously. His 1977 report was an indictment of government secretary; it exposed the bureaucratic methods used to circumvent the First Amendment and the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts.

His superiors, apparently horrified at the unexpected turn his investigation had taken, ordered Vargas to tone down his report. They wanted him to scissor out the parts that would make them and their fellow officials look bad. Vargas refused, and appealed directly to President Carter -- the man who had campaigned the year before on a promise to weed out incompetency in Washington. Vargas was then fired.

With this signal from the Carter White House, word was sent throughout the bureaucracy: Don't hire Phil Vargas. Four years later, Vargas still can't find work. He is that troublemaker, a person who is "not a team player."

Officials sympathetic to Vargas told my reporters Indy Badhwar and Deborah Latish that they were warned "not to get involved" with him. Vargas' credentials still remain as alluring as they had been when he was hired by Carter. "It is ironic," he says, "that I am one of the best-educated Hispanics in this country, yet no one will hire me."

Though the Carter administration was almost desperately seeking qualified personnel from ethnic minorities to boost its image, Vargas was not on its list of possibilities after he committed his upardonable sin.

Jobs in the private sector weren't much easier to find. Vargas was reduced to a series of temporary jobs -- construction work, teaching. He formed his own consulting firm in the summer of 1979, but the Small Business Administration took a leisurely year or more to consider his application for certification as a small businessman -- necessary for him to compete effectively for government consulting contracts. Then the SBA rejected his application. It took letters from two senators and two congressmen to get the SBA to reconsider. Vargas is still awaiting that decision; meanwhile, he has lost several consulting contracts because he isn't certified.

Vargas is now almost broke. His wife has left him. The bills are piling up. Even his fellow Hispanics have proven to be reluctant to rally to his support. Last October, Vargas circulated a letter to more than 200 friends and political contracts urging them not to support Jimmy Carter's reelection bid. The Reagan people have so far remained unimpressed.

Vargas could have left Washington to start his life over somewhere else, but he stubbornly refuses to go. He is determined to fight the swivel-chair officials on their own turf.

"Phil is driven by intensely felt principles," a colleague explained. "He is a man with immense personal integrity, who has never backed away from what he felt was right."

What exactly did Vargas do to merit the treatment he has received? All he did was report, with supporting evidence, that government officials deliberately hide or manipulate information they are required to disclose under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts and that decisions to release or withhold information are made capriciously.

That was it. To the average citizen, it might seem like nothing very drastic -- criticism that could be cleared up with minimal effort by the officials involved. But to the bureaucrat, honest fault-finding is not to be countenanced. A whistleblower who has the audacity to document his charges of incompetence must be crushed. That's what they've tried to do to Phil Vargas.