For several months, employes at a Voice of America production unit say they have been deluged with telephone calls from people inquiring about gold, not because of any broadcast on the subject but because some VOA colleagues have been conducting a private gold-selling business out of government offices.

That business included frequent calls to Bolivia to check on gold investments and telephone conversations about hallmarks, assays and gold bars. In recent months, the phone conversations included talk about brokering other products -- platinum, oranges, sugar, shrimp and even exchanging yen for dollars -- but this talk apparently produced no deals.

Prospective customers seemed surprised that the number they had been given rang at VOA. Through it all, employes took messages and wondered how what appeared to be a brazen violation of government rules could operate for so long.

In an interview, Ramon Medina, executive producer of the unit that produces programs for South America and Central America, said that he and producer Gunnar Paabo "made a very bad mistake" in carrying on private business on government time and using government property. At the end of the interview, Medina, 57, said he planned to retire after 22 years with VOA.

But he insisted that his government work "didn't suffer, the way I see it . . . . I'm enterprising . . . I'm full of energy. I could do 10 jobs at one time. I could do 10 jobs right, honest." Medina's federal salary is about $55,000 a year.

In an interview the next day, VOA's associate director for broadcasting, Richard W. Carlson, said he had asked the inspector general of the U.S. Information Agency, VOA's parent agency, to investigate the matter. Federal regulations prohibit the use of government property for private purposes. VOA, in particular, has been trying to crack down on telephone abuse. A Feb. 4 VOA directive cited "soaring telephone costs" and the problem of "unauthorized calls."

While admitting personal fault, Medina also blamed the agency for being "lax." He said the telephone was "like candy all over the table in front of somebody that is on a diet. That temptation is there . . . that tool {the telephone} is horrible, because nobody cares what you do, nobody monitors it."

He added: "The message was like, 'Hey, there is nothing going wrong.' Nobody says anything. I do my work and I talk about these things, but my performance record is terrific all the time . . . . Someone should say 'Hey, you are in business on the outside, don't you dare bring that . . . business to work.' "

Several VOA officials said they knew of Medina's dealings in gold but said they did not know that he and Paabo were conducting private business during government time. Carlson said employes should have reported the abuse. "There's an IG's {inspector general's} hotline at VOA that is well known," Carlson said.

Medina's superior, American Republics Division Chief Richard Araujo, said he learned last fall of large numbers of unexplained international calls, many to Bolivia. He issued an Oct. 21 memo requiring, in some instances, that such calls be cleared with supervisors, one of whom was Medina. In November or December, Araujo ordered one telephone disconnected because of misuse, he said.

"I had suspicions of abuse, but no evidence of who or how many," Araujo said. "It went on because I didn't have the proof to clamp down on it."

At the time of Araujo's memo, according to a knowledgeable VOA source, Medina told his superiors that he suspected employes from outside the unit had used the telephone when supervisors were absent. That same source said that an internal investigation begun last week has shown that other employes in the unit also made numerous unauthorized international calls and may have been carrying on private business.

In the interview, Medina said he has had outside financial interests for years, but said he did not pursue them during government hours. Then two to three years ago, he said, he began buying gold in Bolivia and selling it in the United States. During a trip to Bolivia, he hired an agent to buy the gold from miners. Altogether, he said, he bought 44 pounds of gold and invested about $100,000.

He also said he received help from another VOA employe, broadcaster Raul Novillo-Alarcon, whose family lives in Bolivia and has contacts in the gold industry there. Medina estimated that he and Novillo-Alarcon made between 50 and 100 calls to Bolivia on VOA telephones, including some by Novillo-Alarcon to his family. "When I called down there, I just wanted to make sure my money was secure, that it was not being stolen, and what was going on," Medina said.

Novillo-Alarcon said he made no more than a dozen calls, some of which were at Medina's request. While saying that "it was wrong," he also asserted that telephone abuse was rampant, calling it "something that almost everybody has done." He said he had no financial interest in Medina's gold operation.

Earlier this year, Medina said, he entered into "an unwritten business relationship" with Paabo, who had recently joined the production unit. After initially denying any financial arrangement with Paabo, Medina said that he had provided Paabo with the names of numerous contacts. Medina said he expected to receive a "referral fee" if Paabo made any sales using those contacts.

Medina said Paabo began exploring new products, including sugar, gasoline and shrimp, and calls from prospective customers increased markedly. But no deals were made, and Paabo's work with the unit remained satisfactory, Medina said.

Paabo declined to discuss his relationship with Medina. "I have kept my eyes open to see what I can do when I leave the agency," said Paabo, who added that he is considering retiring from VOA in October.

It also appears that Paabo pursued another deal on VOA time that was related to his relationship with Medina. A Texas businessman, who asked to remain unidentified, said he talked with Paabo several times in recent weeks about buying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Japanese yen.

The businessman said that the deal was pending and that Paabo would get a broker's fee. The businessman said he had been given Paabo's "office number" but did not realize that it was a VOA phone.

For all their efforts, Medina said, Paabo has yet to close a deal and he, Medina, has lost $20,000 to $30,000 on his gold business. Still, Medina said, he remains fascinated with gold. "Someday I'm going to get the money to go into gold completely . . . . Gold is beautiful," he said. "If you ever saw a bar of gold, you'd know what I am talking about."