The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics yesterday asked the U.S. attorney's office to decide whether backers of a referendum on legalized gambling should be prosecuted for possible criminal violations of a city election law.

At issue is whether officers of the D.C. Committee on Legalized Gambling broke the law by hiring more than 50 young people to collect signatures on petition forms seeking the referendum. Committee officials have freely acknowledged -- and have officialy reported to the elections board -- that they did such hiring.

The referendum failed to qualify for the Nov. 6 ballot because there were not enough valid signatures on the petition. Prior to yesterday's board meeting, committee leaders said they intended to renew the drive to collect signatures so the issue can be put on the ballot next May 6.

Two leaders of the gambling committee, vice chairman Jerry S. Cooper and board member Richard K. Lyon, a lawyer, were in the audience when the elections board referred the matter to the U.S. attorney. Both refused comment.

Lyon is a stockholder in the Washington Jai and lobbyist. If gambling is legalized by the referendum, Lyon said, the firm hopes to win a franchise to conduct jai alai games with parimutuel Alai Corp., which he also represents as a lawyer betting.

A bill enacted by the D.C. City Council to regulate the new referendum procedures makes it a criminal offense to pay anyone "to induce him or her to . . . procure . . . any signature" on a petition form. Violations are punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine or up to a year in jail.

Lyon and Martin E. Firestone, another gambling committee board member and lawyer, for the jai alai firm, told reporters on July 25 that the committee hired a number of young people at $6 an hour to stand on street corners and other places to collect signatures.

Lyon said at the time that the payments were not made to "induce" anybody to do anything, but to compensate them for the time spend collecting signatures.

The Committee of 100 Ministers, the area's Council of Churches and D.D. City Council member William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5) all filed challenges to the gambling petition, citing the payments as one reason for rejecting the proposal to put the referendum on the November ballot.

Based on a legal study of their challenges, the election board's acting general counsel, Cecily Collier, recommended yesterday that the issue be sent to the U.S. attorney. The two board members present yesterday, James L. Denson and Albert J. Beveridge III, voted without comment to do so.

Reports filed by the gambling committee with the electrions board's campaign office showed that the drive to put the issue on the ballot was financed by $2,564 in contributions, notably by liquor store and jai alai interests, and $13,175 in loans.

Of the spending, $6,663 went for services, including payments ranging between $29 and $375 to 52 individuals mostly listed as petition circulators. Another $6,966 was listed as being spent for "media, etc."