The District of Columbia failed to distribute more than 40 per cent of the nearly $1 million in federal funds it received this year to help poor people and the elderly absorb the financial impact of utility bills from last year's unusually cold winter.

More than 4,600 applicants were rejected, an unknown number of whom were eligible for cash assistance of up to $250 per household. They were given nothing, because of a strict interpretation of the federal guidelines by George R. Rodericks, director of the city's Office of Emergency Preparedness, which ran the program.

When the Sept. 23 deadline for giving out money through the hastily-enacted program expired, the city still had on hand nearly $400,000 - enough to help at least 1,600 more households. By contrast, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia used nearly all of their respecitve allotments, in most cases because those states adopted more liberal guidelines.

Rodericks, whose administration by the program was endorsed by Mayor Walter E. Washington, said he made the strict interpretation to avoid "lax" disbursement that might lead to bad publicity, and because there was not enough time to screen all the applications in a way he felt would be satisfactory.

Rodericks also said that he purposedly decided to not give out money to some non-elderly people who were eligible because he had no assurances that the money would be used for its stated purposes and he felt top priority should be given to the elderly.

"I wouldn't give it out on a firstcome, first-serve basis (as was done elsewhere" and find out at cut-off time that hundreds of old people weren't going to get some money," Rodericks said. "That would have been unfair."

"We had plenty of people to process the money. But the issue here was making sure that we protected the taxpayers' money and not throw it away. One thing we were not going to do was to embarrass any agency by making it look like we were squandering money."

Sam Eastman, the mayor's press secretary, said yesterday that Mayor Washington was "satisfied that the program was carried out effectively." Rodericks, 61, has run the emergency office for 20 years.

Lynn Kirk, director of intergovernmental relations for the regional office of the sponsoring federal Community Services Administration, (CSA), said she was concerned about the way the District government operated the program.

"I think their screening and combing with a fine tooth comb is beyond what you can do with that kind of program," she said. "It was clear that they really didn't wsee that the objective of a transfer program - whic is essentially what this was - is to transfer money."

The remaining money will not have to be returned to the federal government, but has instead been shifted to a city-run program to help improve the weatherproofing of homes owned by poor people, which is administered by the United Planning Organization.

"Personally, I feel very strongly that weatherization may be a better use of the money," Kirk acknowledged. "But that's a very hard argument to make in the middle of the winter when someone's got their heat shut off."

The project, known as the Special Crisis Intervention Program, was set up by Congress earlier this year and money was allocated in late July to states on the basis of the number of low-income residents and the severity of the weather during the previous winter.

In the Washington area last winter, temperatures became steadily colder than normal after October, and between late December and mid-February, there were 48 straight days of sub-freezing temperatures.

Working on the theory that the unusual cold and high cost of utilities would create financial hardships for many, Congress allocated $200 million for two categories of persons. One group was those whose utility - as, oil or electric - service had been stopped or was in danger of being cut off because of large upaid bills. The other group was those who could show "dire financial need" due to paying unusually high utility bills since Oct. 1, 1976.

Eligible applicants, whose annual income had to generally be in the range of the CSA poverty levels, ($7,300 for a family of four) could have up to $250 paid to the utility company to help get service restored or maintained.

Those who had already paid utility bills, could receive up to $50 in cash - presumably to help pay other expenses defrayed in order to pay utility bills - and have up to $200 more put in half. The program guidelines stipulated that priority should be given to senior citizens and handicapped persons.

One major problem encountered by the D.C. operation was getting a clear definition of "dire financial need," and proof of it. The definition was left to the individual states, Kirk said, but the District government, frequently referring to the need to pass financial audits, wanted a specific definition given or agreed to by the federal governemnt.

"The issue was that we could get no definitions of 'dire financial need' clause stricken," said Sam Newman, an assistant to Rodericks, who supervised the program. Newman said he did not feel comfortable in assuming a liberal meaning of the term. "I'm not familiar with OEO (Office of Economic Opportunity) and CSA programs to the extent," he said.

Newman had several heated discussions with Kirk concerning the city's 'dire financial need' problem. "What he really wanted me to say is 'dire financial need' is the following 17 things and you'll be audit-free if you live like that," Kirk recalled. "We're not in a position to do that. The District was given as much (guidance) as any other jurisdiction got."

When the federal officials refused to give that definition, Rodericks said, he finally decreed that anyone 65 years or over who was poor enough to be eligible for the program and had paid some utility bills had probably been placed in 'dire financial need' by making such payments.

Thus, every senior citizen in this category who applied and was elibible was helped, Rodericks said, because the elderly were a priority grouP. Those under 65 who were similarly financially eligible and had also paid bills were rejected.

"Some people who were eligible for the $50 didn't get it. I made the judgment not to send it out because I had some doubt as to whether it would ever be applied to utility bills." Rodericks said. "That was my judgment. If it was wrong, so be it."

Other jurisdictions approached the same problem differently. In Maryland, for example, a sliding scale comparing income to utility payments was developed and used to determine eligibility. In Virginia, it was assumed that anyone who was financially eligible and had paid utility bills - regardless of age - was in dire financial need, according to state officials.

The operation of the utility assistance program here marked the second time in 18 months that poor people in the city had received limited access to a target federal program because of the city government's handling of it.

In July of 1976, Lorenzo W. Jacobs, director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, acknowledged that his agency had deliberately made it difficult for persons to apply for federal rent subsidies in order to discourage a large number of applicants who in turn would produce "more paperwork for us."

But mayoral spokesman Eastman said that in his mind the situations were different because "I don't think there was a feeling on Mr. Rodericks' part that he didn't want to bother."