NEW YORK, NOV. 14 -- The government today filed $6.8 billion in claims against the investment banking firm Drexel Burnham Lambert Group Inc. to recover money lost by more than 40 failed savings and loan institutions in junk bonds and other securities transactions.

Alleging that Drexel and others "plundered the S&Ls" by manipulating the financial markets, the government made its filing with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York to recover money from the remains of the now-defunct investment bank that rode junk bonds to riches in the 1980s, along with its star financier, Michael Milken.

The government alleged that Drexel had monopolized the junk bond market and maintained the appearance of "a market for junk that would not otherwise exist" through "bribery, coercion, extortion, fraud and other illegal means."

The two government agencies that made the claims were the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which is the successor to the now-bankrupt savings and loan insurance fund, and the Resolution Trust Corp., the agency charged with the cleanup of failed S&Ls.

Drexel Burnham Lambert issued a statement saying that it had become "a convenient scapegoat for the S&L crisis, as various agencies and branches of the government attempt to deflect their own responsibility at the expense of" other individuals and companies seeking to recover money in the firm's bankruptcy proceedings.

Drexel said it would defend itself "regardless of the number of zeroes in the claims." A Drexel spokesman added that "in court the conduct of regulators and others chiefly responsible for the S&L debacle will be the real issue."

The government will not be able to recover the full amount of its claims from Drexel. As of its last financial statement, on July 27, Drexel had only $3.1 billion of total assets -- less than half of the government's total claims. In addition, Drexel acknowledges that it has other debts of $2.9 billion.

The FDIC and RTC said they also would seek money from two Drexel restitution funds totaling $750 million. Those funds, created as part of a settlement of other charges, are being administered by the Securities and Exchange Commission and are intended to satisfy claims against the firm by investors. In addition, the FDIC and RTC said they are considering additional lawsuits against Drexel, Milken and others.

The essence of the government's case is that Drexel used S&Ls to create a web of buyers that helped give the appearance of a market for junk bonds, which are high-risk, high-yield bonds that were used to finance many corporate takeovers. That enabled Drexel to sell junk bonds at inflated prices and make substantial profits.

But S&Ls, which accounted for about 10 percent to 20 percent of the junk bond market, were left holding the junk bonds and suffered heavy losses when Drexel and the junk bond market collapsed. Those losses in turn contributed to the failure of many S&Ls that have been seized by the government. The burden of their losses are now falling on the taxpayer, becoming part of the estimated $500 billion price tag for the S&L cleanup.

FDIC investigators have been focusing on Drexel's connections with the savings and loan industry for several months. Of the 10 thrifts that became the biggest investors in junk bonds, eight also raised money by selling similar bonds through Drexel. Charles H. Keating Jr., for example, bought Lincoln Savings and Loan in Irvine, Calif., in 1983 with $50 million of junk bonds raised by Milken. Under Keating, Lincoln became a major purchaser of hundreds of millions of dollars of junk bonds from Drexel and other Drexel clients.

Lincoln later became insolvent and was seized by regulators. Keating has been indicted in connection with its failure.

The FDIC and RTC said that the losses on junk bonds totaled about $2 billion, but they are seeking treble damages under organized crime and antitrust laws. The agencies said that Drexel violated federal and state securities laws, antitrust laws and the federal racketeering law against organized crime.

In its filing, the agencies alleged that Drexel had monopolized the junk bond market and maintained the appearance of "a market for junk that would not otherwise exist" through "bribery, coercion, extortion, fraud and other illegal means."

In addition, the filing includes claims on behalf of 15 failed S&Ls for more than $800 million in damages. That includes a $517 million claim previously filed in federal court in Dallas on behalf of Guaranty Federal Savings and Loan of Dallas.

FDIC Chairman L. William Seidman said his agency and the RTC had reviewed more than 5 million pages of documents and interviewed individuals at "hundreds of failed institutions" in an investigation he described as "the most extensive ever undertaken by federal banking agencies."

"The American taxpayers, who are paying the bill for the S&L bailout, expect no less from us," Seidman said.

Thursday is the deadline for the government to file claims in the bankruptcy court. It had petitioned unsuccessfully for an extension last month.

A Drexel executive, who spoke on condition that he not be named, said that the government's strategy apparently was to make a very large claim in expectation that it would be trimmed in court proceedings.

"It's certainly a very aggressive posture," the executive said. He suggested that the government's attitude was, "If they get whittled down and end up with half a billion dollars, that's not insignificant."

The Drexel executive also suggested that a "donnybrook" might erupt between the federal government and Drexel's other creditors, with the latter objecting to the government's effort to get a piece of what is left of Drexel's assets. "The other creditors can't be happy with these other guys {in the government} coming in," the Drexel executive said.

Most of Drexel's other creditors are foreign banks and domestic institutional investors that had lent money to Drexel. Drexel faces billions of dollars in other claims in more than 100 civil lawsuits filed by investors, shareholders and former clients.

Drexel has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings since February, which means that it technically has continued to exist in a legal sense -- although not to operate as a securities dealer as it did before -- while it tries to restructure itself financially. It currently has fewer than 300 employees, who mostly are handling its legal work and tending to its remaining portfolio of stocks and bonds. At the start of this year, it had more than 5,000 employees.

A spokesman for Milken declined to comment on the government's claim. Milken, who has pleaded guilty to securities and tax fraud, is to be sentenced next week.

Mufson contributed to this report from Washington.