When Lester L. Miller, Allandus Coates and Pierre and Frances Hardre hired James N. Whiting, a self-employed Washington bookkeeper, accountant and tax preparer, they thought that Whiting would figure out their U.S. tax returns and submit them to the Internal Revenue Service.

But yesterday Whiting pleaded guilty in U.S. Disfalse claim with the IRS in connection with his tax return preparation, took money from his tax return customers and the IRS and then cashed checks intended as tax refunds or as payment for taxes owed the government.

Whiting, 37, of 1 Hawaii Ave, NW, faces up to 40 years in prison and a fine of $23,000.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger M. Adelman told Judge John Lewis Smith that under the charges to which he pleaded. Whiting defrauded his tax return clients and the government of nearly $6,000. Adelman said the government would dismiss 17 other charges against Whiting when he is sentenced, probably in the next month or two.Those charges alleged that Whiting defrauded the government and his clients of another $8,000.

Adelman said that Whiting in one instance made a false claim with the IRS for a $1,367 refund for Coates, but then had the check sent to himself and cashed it.

In another instance, Whiting pleaded guilty to a charge that he told the Hardres that they owed $509 in taxes to the government and that they should write a check to "Internal Revenue Service Individual Tax," a nonexistent group. Adelman said Whiting cashed that check as well and kept the money.

While pocketing the $509. Adelman said that Whiting actually filed a second return with the IRS and claimed a refund for $1,486, which he admitted to the court that he also kept when the IRS sent it to him.

Adelman said, the case came under investigation when the Hardres complained to D.C. police who turned the investigation over to the IRS. Adelman said that the checks Whiting cashed showedup on microfilm at the bank where he deposited them.

Whiting remained free on personal recognizance pending sentencing.