Federal housing official Emanuel S. Savas said yesterday that he saw no problem in accepting consulting fees from a firm that later received a government contract, because it owed him the money and he then limited his role in the award process.

"This was done properly, responsibly and without any appearance of conflict of interest," said Savas, an assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development. "It was a perfectly clean operation."

The Washington Post reported yesterday that Savas appointed, and served as a nonvoting member of, a HUD review panel that awarded a $495,000 contract to Ecodata Inc., although it was not the lowest bidder.

The New York-based firm has paid Savas $33,000 in consulting fees, more than half of it in 1981 for work that Savas said he did in 1980. Savas entered the government early in 1981, shortly after President Reagan's inauguration.

Savas is on administrative leave with pay pending an investigation by HUD Inspector General Charles R. Dempsey.

As an expert on public service delivery, Savas said, "I have friends on several of the firms that were making proposals."

He said he suggested Ecodata and another firm he had worked with as possible bidders because "I wanted to make sure we had good bidders, qualified bidders."

Savas said he accepted fees from Ecodata and another firm while he was at HUD in 1981 because "people owed me money from the past and they paid me. What am I supposed to do--suspend my debts when I join the government?"

Savas said he had no way of knowing that Ecodata would receive the contract he originally proposed, that he did not attend any review board meetings and did not know the firm had been selected when he increased the funds for the contract.

He said he requested a general counsel's opinion, which found no conflict on his part "because of my prior business connection with Ecodata . . . . Every single fact had been disclosed by me."

Two review board members, however, said they did not know that Savas had been paid by Ecodata.

Savas said it would be "too much trouble" to discard his stock in another firm set up by Ecodata's owner.

The owner has published several articles jointly with Savas. He said the second firm has no clients.

Savas was unable to explain the discrepancies in accounts of several HUD employes who proofread and partially typed his book, "Privatizing the Public Sector," on government time.

He has said this was handled without his knowledge by his former assistant, Joseph Esposito, but Esposito said Savas was not telling the truth and that Savas directed him to assign the work on government time.

"I'm still trying to reach Joe so we can refresh each other's memories," Savas said. "I'm still trying to find out exactly what happened."

He said he would repay HUD for this work, or some of the 20 trips to New York he took last year at government expense, if the inspector general recommends it.