A federal judge was asked yesterday to hold the president of the family controlled A.H. Robins Co. in criminal and civil contempt for disobeying a court order to recover $2.2 million in improper payments by the bankrupt firm.

The Dalkon Shield Claimants' Committee told U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr. that E. Claiborne Robins Jr., 44, should be fined, possibly imprisoned, and held liable for unrecovered sums and attorneys' fees and expenses.

The committee, which represents tens of thousands of women who say they were injured by the firm's contraceptive device, filed the motion in Merhige's court in Richmond.

Committee counsel Murray Drabkin said in the motion that the company has violated the year-old court order by doing "virtually nothing during the last six months" to recover the $2.2 million for the creditors -- mainly shield victims. Robins has recovered $4 million.

Much of the $2.2 million "has not even been demanded," even though the statute of limitations for recovery "may already have begun to expire," Drabkin alleged.

Yesterday, the company said that Ralph R. Mabey, the examiner in the case, had agreed to support it in seeking court permission to end the effort to recover some of the payments, including those made to wholesalers and promotional companies.

The company also called the contempt motion "injudicious and erroneous" and "the latest attempt to embarrass Mr. Robins, the company and its employes."

Merhige, who has presided in the case since the firm filed for Chapter 11 protection in August 1985, has not set a date for a District Court hearing on the contempt motion.

Last year, the judge held the company -- but no individuals -- in civil contempt for violating court orders. Six weeks later, in August 1986, he told the company at a court hearing to designate the officer who would be "responsible for every act taken out there because I am not going to be hearing any more civil contempts {for violations of court orders in the bankruptcy}... .

"I want anybody that does any wrong out there ... up here on criminal contempt where I can really issue sanctions," Merhige continued. "I can put people in jail if it is appropriate and fine them personally. I want to know who is 'it,' who do I look to.

"Is it young Mr. Robins ... ?" the judge asked Dennis J. Drebsky, the company's special bankruptcy counsel. "Yes," Drebsky replied.

"He is the fellow," Merhige continued. "You tell him if he is not willing to accept that responsibility he best take a prolonged vacation without pay." Drebsky replied, "He is willing to accept that."

The principal basis for last year's civil contempt action against the company was that it had made several million dollars in unauthorized payments, including $1.8 million in post-bankruptcy insider bonuses to 18 present and former executives.

Such actions were "prohibited by both the spirit and the letter of the bankruptcy laws," the judge said. "The law has been flaunted and a subterfuge has been practiced by certain personnel of the {company}."

Yesterday's contempt motion was based on an order to the company to "immediately notify and demand from all recipients" a refund of improper payments, with interest, and to begin court proceedings against recipients who refuse to make the refunds. Merhige signed the order on Aug. 14, 1986.

Last June 4, after about $4 million had been recovered, Senior Vice President and general counsel H. Arvid Johnson told examiner Mabey that it was "entirely unnecessary" to continue with the recovery program, partly because it wasn't cost-effective.

Mabey said the "appropriate course" for the firm could be to file a motion asking Merhige for relief.

Company lawyer George P. Manson Jr. responded on Aug. 14, urging Mabey, by himself or joined by the company, to seek a court ruling "that all amounts large enough to justify costly litigation have already been recovered."

Mabey declined, saying he hadn't approved "any relaxation or stoppage of the recovery program." The company said yesterday that Mabey had said that he "would support an appropriate motion."

On Aug. 19, in another effort to enlarge Robins' personal accountability, Drabkin won Merhige's permission to file suit seeking $2.4 billion from Robins and two other directors -- his father, Chairman E. Claiborne Robins, and former president William L. Zimmer III -- for "misdeeds" and "grossly negligent actions" in connection with the defective IUD and the bankruptcy it precipitated.

Merhige has set Nov. 5 for a hearing on a financial reorganization plan proposed by the firm after it signed a letter of intent to merge with Rorer Group Inc.

Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.