The former president of the Alexandria Bar Association was indicted by a federal grand jury yesterday on charges of conspiring to funnel regular cash payments to unnamed public officials in order to "buy protection" for a large Washington area prostitution ring.

James I. Burkhardt, a prominent Northern Virginia lawyer, was charged with one count of conspiracy and two of racketeering stemming from his role as legal adviser to massage parlor kingpin Louis Michael Parrish between 1974 and 1978.

The indictment, the outgrowth of a continuing federal investigation into allegations of public corruption in the Washington suburbs, charges that Parrish made regular cash payments to Burkhardt, money that prosecutors say was supposed to be passed to the officials to allow Parrish's parlors to flourish

Parrish and two associates were convicted in March of various felony charges growing out of the operation of Parrish-owned massage parlors and outcall services in Washington and the Virginia suburbs.

Burkhardt, 49, declined to comment yesterday on the eight-page, three-count indictment that was returned by a grand jury meeting in Newport News.

Burkhardt's lawyer, Kenneth Michael Robinson, said yesterday his client is innocent and that federal prosecutors had offered to reduce the charges if Burkhardt would testify against former Alexandria prosecutor William L. Cowhig.

Burkhardt refused the offer, saying in Robinson's words, that "he wouldn't take it because he wouldn't lie."

Cowhig, who resigned a year ago after being acquitted on charges related to illegal bingo operations in the city, has been said by sources close to the federal investigation to be one of the subjects of the probe. He has not been charged with any federal crime and could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Parrish and his top assistant, Larry J. Wadino, told investigators last year that they paid $500 a month to Cowhig between 1976 and 1978 to avoid prosecution, according to sources. The original agreement to make the cash payments to Cowhig, sources said, came in late 1976 when Parrish, Cowhig and Burkhardt allegedly met in a Crystal City hotel room.

Robinson said yesterday that prosecutors wanted Burkhardt to corroborate Parrish's grand jury testimony. "They wanted him to put money in Cowhig's hand, but he wouldn't lie . . . to corroborate Parrish's fantasies," the lawyer said.

If convicted, Burkhardt faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine on each of the three charges against him.

The indictment alleges that Burkhardt had advised the Parrish organization on how its massage parlor employes could avoid being arrested on prostitution charges and advised the workers to lie under oath to protect the illicit operation.

Burkhardt is accused of accepting sexual favors in 1975 from a Parrish masseuse instead of cash for his legal services, the indictment charges.

Named as unindicted conconspirators were Parrish and his former top associates Wadino, Kathy Lynn Caldwell, and Clyde Ballard Stovall Jr.

Burkhardt allegedly assisted them in setting up "an interrelated network of corporate bank accounts" in which the profits of their prostitution ring were deposited, the indictment charges.

Robinson denounced them as "turncoats . . . trying to blame the whole thing on a lawyer who was simply acting as a lawyer." The attorney indicated he will attack their credibility at Burkhardt's trial. "The people we put on won't have been convicted of any crimes," he said.

On April 29, 1975, Burkhardt supposedly advised Wadino to perjure himself in the trial of Danny Stubblefield, the indictment charges. Stubblefield was convicted of the rape, robbery and assault of a masseuse from an Alexandria parlor known as Bunny's.

Burkhardt was mentioned frequently in testimony at the Parrish trial as an adviser and consultant to the $1 million-a-year massage parlor business. One witness testified that Burkhardt once suggested the term "dancing" be used instead of "intercourse" by workers in the Parrish organization.

In an interview shortly before he was named as a target of the federal grand jury investigation last April, Burkhardt said: "I was giving advice on how not to violate the law. . . . Everyone knows that massage parlors are places for 'locals' [manual sexual stimulation]. I still don't know that they are against the law."

If he erred, Burkhardt said then, it was "in being dumb."

Burkhardt also said that he was "nervous" about the investigation and felt that federal authorities were focusing on him "as a likely person to drop it on."

The attorney said that "Parrish never paid off anybody."

Yesterday's indictment of the tall, silver-haired lawyer ends several months of efforts by prosecutors to have Burkhardt testify against his old friend, Cowhig, a member of Alexandria's friend, "Ole Boy" network of attorneys.

Cowhig, 54, resigned his job as chief prosecutor last year after being acquitted in two highly publicized trials on illegal gambling and bribery charges. The chief witness in one of the trials testified he had paid Cowhig $32,000 in bribes to protect bingo games that violated Virginia's gambling laws.