When the Ill Wind investigation of Pentagon procurement fraud became public more than two years ago, then-Attorney General Edwin Meese III and others close to the probe promised that lofty heads would roll.

Today critics say Ill Wind petered out in disappointment. But prosecutors disagree. They point to 38 individual and corporate convictions and to more than $32 million in fines -- and promise more to come, including some of those promised higher-ups.

Defense attorneys, many of whom received generous fees representing Ill Wind defendants, say the 3 1/2-year probe has proceeded at a snail's pace, and criticize prosecutors for sometimes using shrill publicity to trample reputations and careers long before charges were brought, or even considered.

Some industry representatives said the investigation has corralled mostly rogue consultants, who tried to use influence bribes to help clients, and mid-level corporate officers on a misdirected mission to impress the front office. Even investigation insiders concede that corruption has not run as deep, or have convictions come as quickly, as Meese and others suggested two years ago.

But the federal prosecutors contend that they have dismantled several fraud and bribery schemes to manipulate multimillion-dollar weapons contracts and that the investigation and cooperation of past defendants, eager to reduce their prison time by offering damaging information against colleagues and superiors, has revealed new and high-level conspiracies.

As a result, prosecutors promise several dozen new convictions in coming months, some of which reach into the upper echelon of the defense industry.

"We are on the verge of concluding the first phase of the Ill Wind investigation, which encompassed those people identified by the wiretaps, initial interviews and seized documents," said U.S. Attorney Henry E. Hudson, whose Alexandria-based office has led the inquiry.

Hudson, who predicts there will be as many as 100 convictions by the time Ill Wind concludes, added that his team is turning attention from independent defense consultants, who formed the core of the first prosecutions, "to corporate officers and other public officials."

Key to the conclusion of the first wave of Ill Wind is former assistant secretary of the Navy Melvyn R. Paisley, accused by a former colleague of rigging a $100 million contract for drones used in battlefield reconnaissance.

A resolution of Paisley's case is expected soon.

Paisley's former colleague, Willliam M. Galvin, pleaded guilty in March to conspiracy, bribery and tax evasion. As is true of virtually every defendant who has pleaded guilty in Ill Wind, Galvin named several conspirators in his plea statement and described detailed incidents in which contracting improprieties or bribes were arranged and carried out.

Ill Wind, which began after a tip concerning a small-scale local defense consultant, surfaced 1 1/2 years later, in June 1988, when federal agents with search warrants burst into defense industry offices and consultants' living rooms across the country.

Law enforcement officials describe the probe as among the most successful procurement-related investigations ever. They base their claim on 34 individual convictions and four corporate convictions. The nearly $32 million in damages more than covered cost of the inquiry, they said.

The case also revealed several schemes to buy influence or information that helped defense firms gain unfair advantage in contract competitions, they said.

Officials also praise the sophistication of Ill Wind, noting a massive Federal Bureau of Investigation computer data base that was drawn on to reconstruct events from years ago and the coordination of 1,000 federal investigators from the FBI and the Naval Investigative Service.

The Internal Revenue Service and Defense Criminal Investigative Service also participated.

But critics, including some who participated in the government investigation, maintain that Ill Wind revealed little more than a decades-old brand of corruption and failed to deliver the startling results first promised.

"We were told that this was corruption that went to the highest levels of the government and industry. All we've had is a bunch of dinks," said Brian P. Gettings, a defense attorney and former U.S. attorney. George G. Stone, Gettings's client, was a director in the contracts division of the Space and Naval Warfare Command and is the highest public official convicted in Ill Wind.

Pentagon officials professed some relief at the results of the investigation. "I don't mean to minimize the nastiness of what was going on, but {the corruption} was not nearly as broad and deep" as first feared, said Dennis H. Trosch, assistant general counsel for the Defense Department.

Trosch added that Ill Wind caused Pentagon officials to fine-tune regulations and attitudes governing the handling of inside information about contract competitions.

A law enforcement official, who asked not to be identified, said the investigation's potential for a quick resolution was oversold by the government and media. "It wasn't realistic that it would take 60 to 90 days to have indictments," as Meese told journalists, the source said. "We were all kind of blinded. Listening to the {wiretap} tapes, we felt like we had a lot."

It took almost six months before the investigation delivered its first indictment.

Another official close to the case said it has been slowed by prosecutors, who kept investigators on too short a leash and were unwilling to pursue several defendants at a time.

Some said the slow pace was also caused by the need to depend heavily on cooperation of subordinates or business partners -- evident in lengthy plea agreements outlining complex schemes with several players that took hundreds of hours of negotiations with defendants.

All but four of the guilty defendants entered pleas rather than fight charges in court, reflecting, prosecutors said, the strength of their cases.

But some defense attorneys said inflexible new sentencing guidelines persuaded defendants to plead to lesser counts rather than risk conviction on charges carrying long sentences.

Albert J. Ahern Jr. said his client, Thomas E. Muldoon, refused to plead guilty, "stood firm, and they socked it to him. It was really to carry a message to everybody else not to get out of line" and refuse to plead guilty.

Muldoon was sentenced to 27 months in prison, the second longest sentence in Ill Wind. He was also the only defendant indicted twice.

A federal judge threw out the second case, saying prosecutors acted with "vindictiveness" in bringing the second round of charges shortly after Muldoon appealed his first conviction.

The length of the investigation has become a punishment of its own, defense attorneys said. Individuals whose names surfaced early sometimes lost jobs and community respect, even though it was often months before formal charges were brought, attorneys said.

R. Stan Mortenson, who defended a Teledyne Industries executive acquitted in Ill Wind, said, "From the time you're notified to the point that they decide to indict or not can be an extraordinary amount of time . . . . The families have to live with that. Kids go to school and have classmates come to them and ask questions about their dad. That stuff hurts."

But Richard B. Wade, an FBI special agent who has played a key role since Ill Wind's covert beginnings, said the length of the probe was caused by the complexity of the case, which required hundreds of interviews and cross-checking of hundreds of thousands of documents.

He noted that the first wave of prosecutions had a significant impact on the procurement world and reined in the use of independent consultants by contractors. Several business representatives said Ill Wind forced them to reevaluate their handling of information and consultants, but noted that industry drafted its tough code of ethics two years before Ill Wind.

The Defense Industry Initiative -- to which 50 corporations, including 22 of the top 25 defense contractors, subscribe -- requires that each member have a written code of ethics and that they "aggressively self-govern and monitor adherence to its code and to federal procurement laws."

Some industry members argue that Ill Wind revealed only a coterie of "bad apples," mostly consultants and mid-level managers duped by the consultants.

Eleven of the 34 people convicted in Ill Wind were consultants, and 18 were industry representatives, who hired or collaborated with the consultants.

Awards for defense contracts exploded from $76 billion in 1980 to $153 billion in 1985 and during that period contractors scrambled for a competitive edge, sometimes hiring consultants as a kind of "insurance policy," business and government officials said.

As a result, the consultants did not receive the attention or guidance from corporate headquarters that they might have had they been more central to their operations, executives said.

Don Fuqua, president of the Aerospace Industries Association and a former Florida congressman, suggested that Ill Wind and similar investigations show that no amount of governmental or corporate regulation can smother corruption.

"It's like one {chief executive officer} told me: 'I have 90,000 employees and I don't know of one town in the country with a population of 90,000 that doesn't have a jail,' " Fuqua said.