Edwin T. McBirney III, a flamboyant, self-made millionaire who typified the excesses of the Texas savings and loan industry, pleaded guilty yesterday to fraud charges that expose him to a potential prison term of 15 years.

The conviction of the former head of Sunbelt Savings Association, a Dallas thrift that spent more than $1.3 million on Halloween and Christmas parties, was a top priority for a Dallas task force established by the Justice Department as a model for S&L prosecutions.

Sunbelt's failure in 1986 ranked among the nation's most costly.

McBirney's plea agreement followed by one day a jury's conviction of another well-known Dallas thrift operator, Donald R. Dixon, former owner of Vernon Savings and Loan, on 23 counts. The case against Dixon centered on his use of thrift funds for a California beach house.

"Federal prosecutors have dealt a one-two punch to the savings and loan crooks this week," Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said in a statement.

McBirney pleaded guilty to four charges: bank fraud; filing a false tax return, causing a false statement to be made to Sunbelt and misapplying $250,000 in Sunbelt funds in connection with a loan to a "straw borrower." He also agreed to pay $8.5 million in restitution and civil penalties.

The Justice Department said McBirney agreed to admit that he devised a scheme to finance a $700 million Southern California real estate purchase through a "reciprocal loan" deal with another thrift.

The indictment alleged that McBirney offered officials from Western Savings Association a $6 million profit on any property they wanted to sell if they in turn provided him with $30 million in funds for his own real estate purchase.

Western officials agreed to the deal, selecting a 708-tract of land purchased for $4.5 million and now appraised at $13 million, according to the indictment.

Sunbelt lent an individual $21 million to buy the land from Western, requiring few guarantees of repayment for its loan.

When the loan went sour, McBirney attempted to keep bank regulators from discovering the deal by making loans to third parties and diverting the proceeds to pay off the loan for the land, prosecutors alleged.

McBirney, 37, was charged in July with 17 counts of bank fraud, misapplication of funds and false statements that carried a maximum prison term of 85 years.

U.S. Attorney Marvin O. Collins said then that prosecutors had deliberately scaled back their case because "jurors can only absorb so much."

The charges to which he pleaded guilty carry a maximum term of 15 years.

McBirney, nicknamed "Fast Eddie," is famous in Dallas for mapping out his real estate deals on the paper tablecloths at a local restaurant, dressing up like a king and serving lion and antelope to hundreds of guests at a 1984 Halloween bash, paid for with thrifts funds.