Federal employes who report suspected corruption are commonly left defenseless against a hostile bureaucracy, a group of whistle-blowers yesterday told a Senate panel that is considering legislation to offer greater protection.

The witnesses testified that the government office responsible for investigating their claims and shielding them from persecution generally added to their misery.

The Office of the Special Counsel (OSC) and the Merit Systems Protection Board "are worse than no hope at all for the whistle-blower. They are false hope," said Joseph D. Whitsun Jr., who lost his job as an Air Force laboratory supervisor after he testified about unreliable quality control.

The testimony came before a Senate subcommittee that is drafting legislation to make the OSC more responsive to whistle-blowers.

"In the cruel world of the bureaucracy, most government whistle-blowers can expect extraordinary efforts by their own agency to shut them up, to discredit them, or to eliminate them," said Sen. David H. Pryor (D-Ark.), who chaired the hearing. "In most cases, they can also expect little protection from the Inspectors General or from the agency Congress created to help and protect whistle-blowers, the Office of the Special Counsel," he said.

The bill, authored by Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), would reverse what staff members described as a promanagement bias at the OSC, which has been a frequent target of criticism since its inception under the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act. A similar bill is slated for mark-up by a House committee this week.

Whitsun testified that OSC investigators dismissed his complaint against the Air Force in September 1985 after failing to show up for five scheduled meetings with a group of witnesses he had assembled. He said that he had given the OSC reams of documents over a period of months showing that he was demoted because of his testimony before a military court.

Another witness, Navy engineer Lawrence Timothy Reid, told the committee that the OSC took six months to start a probe and then conducted a prejudiced investigation when he complained that he was being persecuted by Navy management. In 1983, Reid disclosed large cost overruns involving a submarine communications system.

"I expected the special counsel to be an avenging angel. Nothing could have been further from the truth," Reid said. He said he would advise fellow federal workers to think long and hard before stepping forward with charges of corruption.

"My advice to federal employes considering their duty under law to report substantial wrongdoings or misappropriations would be not to do so under current legislation, unless they possessed the resources and credentials of an attorney, a certified public accountant and an ordained saint."

The OSC, whose officials will testify later, called much of the testimony "inaccurate and misleading."

The bill sponsored by Grassley and Levin would make explicit that "the primary role of the Office of Special Counsel is to protect employes, especially whistle-blowers." In recent years, the office has maintained that its primary purpose is to uphold the federal civil service merit system itself rather than to act as an advocate for workers, congressional staff members said.

The so-called Whistleblower Protection Act would make illegal any action against an employe that was even in part a reaction to whistle-blowing. It would also give employes more avenues to press and appeal their cases.