Nearly three decades ago, after confessing involvement in the numbers racket, William (Little Willie) Adams embarked on a new career in which he gained a reputation as a legitimate businessman, multimillionaire, and the premier black power broker in Maryland.

Yesterday, however, local law enforcers here challenged his reformed image. They charged that Adams, now 65, was still the mastermind of an illicit, $5-million-a-year numbers operation stretching across the black sections of Baltimore.

"Willie just wouldn't keep his hands out of it," remarked one investigator, who contended that Adams handed over his lucrative lottery business to friends and family members years ago but continued to participate in the illegal operation's key decisions.

Adams denied the charge in an interview last night, telling a reporter for The Baltimore News American, "If I'm involved in a $5-million-a-year operation, I'd like to know where the money is.

"My name has been linked to many things before. But anytime you're politically involved you become a target. I'm absolutely innocent of any numbers charges."

Adams was formally served the criminal summons this morning, a day after police conducted 51 simultaneous raids charging 21 others with participating in one of the city's largest numbers operations. Because the alleged offense is a misdemeanor, arrests were not necessary.

The charges carry a stunning irony in Adams' adopted town of Baltimore, where he arrived as the poor son of a North Carolina sharecropper in 1929 and went on to build a financial empire of shopping centers, taverns and apartment buildings worth an estimated $40 million.

"What would a millionaire be in the numbers racket for?" asked City Councilman Clarence Du Burns, an old Adams associate. "That's for the small fry, not a man like Mr. Adams."

The profitable workings of the numbers game were large enough for Adams years ago, however, when as a young man of 16 he realized he could earn six or seven times more "writing book" than he received as a rag packer on Baltimore's waterfront.

As he later testified before a U.S. Senate committee investigating organized crime, he started taking half-penny bets in 1930 as a numbers writer and eventually organized his own "numbers company" with 10 lieutenants and a daily "take" of $1,000.

The profits, which he first began squirreling away in cigar boxes, began getting larger and Adams saw a chance to diversify. He bought a bar on the city's west side -- "Little Willie's Inn" -- and used it as a legitimate business front for his ever-growing numbers trade.

By World War II, Adams had acquired interests in numerous taverns and liquor stores, and as the booze business began turning larger profits than numbers, he gradually began farming out the illegal gambling work to friends, while still sharing the profits.

As he gained riches and stature within the black community, Adams gave meaning to his nickname. It came from the film, "Little Caesar," in which some of his friends saw a resemblance between him and the star, Edward G. Robinson, who relentlessly sought to rule the underworld.

The year 1950 served as a turning point for Adams. It was then, he claims, that he officially and completely got out of the numbers racket and started turning his attention to a rapidly increasing portfolio of real estate, construction and liquor.

A small Cleveland sausage company in which he and a friend, Henry Parks, had an interest was moved to Baltimore and renamed the Parks Sausage Co. By the time the company was sold for $5 million in 1977, it was one of the largest black-owned businesses in the nation.

The new "legitimate" Adams also turned to development, and in subsequent years built 13 federally subsidized projects reaching from Baltimore to Rhode Island.

While enriching himself, Adams never turned his back on the black community of Baltimore. In the days of segregated beaches, he operated a "colored" amusement park along the Chesapeak Bay and loaned thousands of dollars to budding black businessmen.

"He's the real symbol of the American dream," said Maryland Del. Frank Conaway, an Adams political ally. "There was no bowing and scraping with Mr. Adams. He's a lesson to everyone of a guy who started with nothing and ended up with millions."

Indeed, Adams, a frugal millionaire who dresses in subdued suits and drove moderately-priced cars until recent years, continues to operate out of a small office in the 1500 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, the heart of nightlife in black Baltimore.

A short, freckled man with a large greying Afro hairstyle, Adams reminds observers of an accountant more comfortable with the world of numbers than his business and politics. "He're retiring to the point of being painfully shy," said one political associate.

The world of politics was a natural extension of Adams' business interests, however, and the tireless entrepreneur began viewing it as a way to protect himself economically while broadening his contacts in the white community.

"Political power and economic power go hand-in-hand," he gold graduates of Atlanta's Morris Brown College in a 1977 commencement address.

For Adams, politics meant some control over the liquor inspectors who regulated the many taverns in which he has interests. It meant an edge in applying for state and city contracts and an advantage in getting his friends appointed to government jobs.

His political star hit its zenith in the early 1970s when Gov. Marvin Mandel considered him an important link to black voters. Through his long and close friendship with Mandel's political godfather, Irvin Kovens, Adams became the most influential black figure in Maryland.

"When you look at Willie in the larger context," said Mandel's former chief of staff Frank A. DeFilippo, "everything that is black and successful in Baltimore is part of Willie's apparatus. He reached much farther than the average black pol."

Adams usually got his way politically during the Mandel years, and in recent times has begun to enjoy his wealth by indulging his passion of golf and spending more time with his tomato garden.

But prominence has had its price for the millionaire who remembers picking cotton at age 4 in his native Carolina. As far as he has come, the rumors have always persisted that he remains connected with the business he considered the only possible path of achievement at the time.

"No one has ever made criminal charges stick against me, and no one ever will," said Adams, who was arrested several times in the early years but never spent a night in jail.

"I'm just a little black boy who was determined above all to keep some of the money white folks were draining out of the black community in the black community where it was needed most."