A Northern Virginia newspaper reporter who posed as a corrections official to pursue a story on prison rapes was charged yesterday with impersonating a law officer and falsifying official prison records, according to a spokesman for the state corrections department.

Spokesman Wayne Farrar said that Potomac News reporter Dave Roman has been arrested, as were suspended Prince William County-Manassas regional jail superintendent William Britton, and his aide, Lt. Dell Audry, who were charged with conspiracy to falsify records.

All three were released on their own recognizance after appearing before a Manassas magistrate. None could be reached for comment.

The arrests came on the eve of a hearing by the Prince William County-Manassas regional jail board into Britton's suspension Jan. 10 and his future with the jail.

The charges stem from an undercover visit that Roman had made to the Mecklenburg State Correction Center near the North Carolina border, with the assistance of Britton and Audry.

According to a Jan. 11 article by Roman, he wanted to visit Mecklenburg to interview condemned murderer Joseph LeVasseur about alleged gang rapes by other death-row inmates. Britton was planning to visit Mecklenburg and agreed to let Roman accompany him.

On Jan. 4, the morning of the trip, Britton told Roman that the reporter could not be admitted to the prison, Roman said. Britton then gave Roman a sergeant's badge, told the newsman that now he "was sworn in for the day, and pinned it on me," according to Roman's story.

Roman wrote that at the prison entrance he showed the badge and signed in as a sergeant. This action is the basis for the falsification of records charge, according to Farrar.

Farrar said that Audry had accompanied Roman to Mecklenburg.

Roman wrote that, upon returning from Mecklenburg, he discussed the trip with his managing editor and was warned against the use of deception to obtain a story. He wrote that he also learned that he might have committed a misdemeanor, although he said he was told that his action fell in a "gray area" of the law.

Roman is still a reporter at the Woodbridge newspaper, said publisher Paul Muse, but the paper has not taken up Rowan's legal defense.

"We don't approve of that approach to getting news," said Muse. "He was advised at the time he informed the editors of the story that we wouldn't be able to defend him."

Farrar emphasized, "I would just like to say that there is a procedure for reporters to obtain interviews with inmates." He added that if inmates agree to interviews, "the requests are nearly always granted." Because LeVasseur had consented to the interview, Farrar said, "it was certainly unnecessary to engage in deception to obtain this story."