A federal judge yesterday set Jan. 19 for the jury trial of a civil lawsuit accusing former attorney general Griffin B. Bell of alleged defamation in connection with the investigation he made in 1985 -- as a private attorney -- of illegal cash-management practices by E.F. Hutton & Co.

The plaintiff in the suit, John M. Pearce, the former manager of Hutton's branch office in Bethesda, seeks an award of compensatory damages. Judge Thomas A. Flannery struck a claim for punitive damages on July 14.

After Hutton pleaded guilty to 2,000 felony counts of mail and wire fraud in May 1985, Robert M. Fomon, then chairman of E.F. Hutton Group, parent of the brokerage firm, retained Bell and King & Spalding, his Atlanta-based law firm.

The announced mission was to investigate how illegal cash-management practices had evolved, and to "identify those individuals who bear personal responsibility."

Bell said in a pretrial brief that his "good faith," "independent" probe excluded any intent or plan "to protect senior management."

But Pearce said that Bell's report and statements at a news conference wrongfully exonerated Fomon and other senior corporate officers, while making Pearce a scapegoat for a scheme they had contrived and run.

Flannery said on July 14:

"... . It cannot be said that as a matter of law it would be unreasonable for a jury to conclude that Bell's statements, regarding upper management's role in the improprieties and plaintiff's culpability in chaining and overdrafting {two of the abusive practices}, were false.

"Furthermore, using the same {preponderance-of-evidence} standard it would not be improper for a jury to conclude Bell negligently published those statements."

Pearce's lawyers, Stephen G. Milliken and Greta C. Van Sustern, said that Bell's report and press conference together contained more than 100 "false" assertions.