Mildred Bautista, former executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, pleaded guilty yesterday in D.C. Superior Court to one count of felony theft in connection with charges that she stole $23,691 from the District government.

Bautista's principal method of taking the funds was to have checks written on arts commission accounts to people who did not exist or to people who were not owed money, and whose endorsements she would forge, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

The thefts occurred between May 1982 and December 1983, according to an information filed with D.C. Superior Court Judge Joseph M.F. Ryan Jr. An information is commonly used instead of an indictment when prosecutors expect a guilty plea.

Bautista has agreed to pay back the D.C. government, a statement from the U.S. attorney's office said. Sentencing was set for July 16. The maximum sentence is 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

The guilty plea was part of a bargain in which prosecutors agreed to put all the theft charges together into one count, according to a knowledgeable official.

Bautista could not be reached for comment yesterday, and her attorney was out of town and unavailable for comment, according to his office.

Mayor Marion Barry ordered an investigation and put Bautista on administrative leave Jan. 30 after he was told of possible improprieties in the handling of arts commission funds.

A month later Bautista issued a statement acknowledging that she had "misused public funds and betrayed the public trust," and shortly thereafter she resigned as the arts commission's executive director.

Barbara Nicholson, acting executive director of the commission, said yesterday that "a number of things are in the works" for creating procedures to prevent any improprieties with funds in the future, and she said these would be announced at some point by the mayor's office.

The mayor's office had no immediate comment on Bautista's guilty plea yesterday.

Bautista, 37, who was a $45,000-a-year appointee of the mayor, had served as the commission's executive director as well as the mayor's cultural adviser since 1979.

In her February statement acknowledging wrongdoing, Bautista expressed "regret and sadness about my sins, particularly to the many people, friends and associates who have placed their faith in me."

In 1972 Bautista resigned as assistant to the superintendent of schools in Ann Arbor, Mich., after the school board found she had falsified her re'sume'. Bautista told Arts Commission Chair Peggy Cooper Cafritz about the Ann Arbor incident before her appointment as executive director to the commission, according to both Bautista and Cafritz.

After Ann Arbor, Bautista was a management consultant and worked for the Washington Center for Metropolitan Studies and the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington.