As a candidate, Jimmy Carter campaigned for openness in government and said the Ernest Fitzgerald case, "where a dedicated civil servant was fired from the Defense Department for reporting cost overruns, must never be repeated."

But Fitzgerald, at a "whistleblowers" conference here this weekend, said his status hasn't really changed. The man who in 1969 blew the whistle on the $2 billion cost ooverrun of the C5A transport plane, who once had broad responsibilities for overseeing major defense contracts, is back in the Pentagon, but he doesn't have much to do. President Carter's model civil servant is still in a kind of bureaucratic limbo.

"I'm specifically excluded from any contact with the big contracts," Fitzgerald said in an interview, "and I'm specifically excluded from any contact with the B-1 bomber. Nothing much has really changed where I am. I still have a Nixon-Ford boss."

Fitzgerald said he used to think the B-1, whose production Carter may approve, was a "boondoggle," but now he doesn't know, because no one will let him examine it.

"What I have learned," Fitzgerald said, "is that the technical problems are more akin to the F-111. It's a constant degradation of performance, where the specifications meet the airplane rather than the other way around."

At by conference on whistleblowing government employees who publicly disclose what they see as improper or illegal conduct by superiors, Fitzgerald disagreed with Carter's new chairman of the Civil Service Commission, Alan K. Campbell, who said there is no "magic formual" to correct abuses against such employees.

Fitzgerald said what is needed is a "common goal" and a system of rewards and punishment, in which employees who spot waste and corruption are promoted and those who cover it up are punished, rather than the other way around. He said Campbell's call for balance among civil servants actually means compromise with powerful special interests, such as defense contractors, who benefit from things as they are.

"Compromise is very popular with politicians," Fitzgerald said, "but it doesn't solve anything. How do you gain anything when you compromise with crooks?"

Carter campaigned for "strong legislation" to oprotect whistleblowers from harassment of dismissal if they disclosed waste or dishonesty. Campbell told the conference that the administration's attitude - wanting a system "fair to the taxpayer and the employees working for the taxpayer" - is more important than specific legislation.

The conference, at the International Inn, was sponsored by the Project on Official Illegality, a brach of the Institute of Policy Studies. Questions and comments from the audience of about 200 government employees, as well as statements from well-known whistleblowers such as Fitzgerald, indicated that employees who do speak out fear dismissal, retaliation by supervisors, and enormous legal fees if they try to fight back.

Fitzgerald estimates legal costs for his seven-year fight to get his job back around $400,000.

Consumer activist Ralph Nader, who showed up unexpectedly Friday night, told the conference that whistleblowing has entered a second phase, where the truth comes out but doesn't mean anything because it no longer has shock value. Lack of response to illegality that has been disclosed, Nader said, "emboldens" wrong doers to continue because they know the public is not organized to stop them.

To encourage federal employees to step forward when they spot wrongdoing, Nader suggested creating a legal defense fund through a voluntary checkoff system. He said employees could have a small portion of their paychecks, health insurance or union dues withheld to employ full-time lawyers to defend whistleblowers who have lost their jobs or have been harassed. From that fund Nader said, could come conferences, more whistleblowers in the "hinterlands," publications, organized lobbying and legislation for civil service reform.