Maryland state Sen. Jerome F. Connell Sr. was described by his defense attorneys today as an innocent victim of his own hectic and disorganized private law practice who would not intentionally defraud the government "of one nickel."

Paul R. Kramer, Connell's lawyer, said his client "was almost like an absent-minded professor" during the period from 1979 to 1981 when he and his law partner, Lloyd E. Clinton Jr., are accused of evading federal income tax payments on $69,000 in unreported income. ". . . He didn't pay attention to the bookkeeping. It was part of the chaotic atmosphere of the office . . . . There was a breakdown in communications."

Kramer's remarks were made during opening statements in a trial expected to last about a month in U.S. District Court here.

Prosecutor Robert B. Green countered that there was a "consistent pattern" in the law firm's tax returns of underreporting payments -- especially undocumented cash payments -- from scores of clients whom Connell and Clinton represented.

"A hundred dollars here, $500 there, $1,000 on several occasions," said Green. ". . . These lawyers were making very good money [and] creating their own tax shelter."

Connell, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and savvy political infighter who resigned his chairmanship of the influential Senate Economic Affairs Committee after his indictment last summer, sat with Clinton in the courtroom, listening intently to the testimony.

Kramer and T. Joseph Touhey, another of Connell's attorneys, acknowledged that some client fees went unreported but said this resulted from poor bookkeeping procedures.

The defense attorneys also repeated their contention that Internal Revenue Service agents and federal prosecutors had spent years fruitlessly investigating Connell, hoping to find evidence of large scale corruption and bribery in connection with his senatorial duties and representation of liquor interests in Anne Arundel County.

After such an expenditure of time and money, Kramer said, they had to settle for a petty tax evasion case "so weak and feeble that it barely hobbled into court."

Among the prosecutor's first witnesses were bookkeeper Celeste Maxwell and chief secretary Patricia White, in Connell's law firm at the time of the alleged crimes.

Both denied they were instructed by Connell or Clinton to delete any client fees from the office cash receipts book. But they said the two lawyers periodically asked them to "hold" or "give back" fees they had earned, and such fees were not recorded in the cash receipts book -- and ultimately were not reported on the firm's income tax returns.

Maxwell said she recorded only those fees that were to be deposited in the law firm's bank account, not those marked "hold" for Connell or Clinton.

White testified that when Connell asked her to "hold" cash for him from a client, "I would give it to him and make a notation on the back of the client's file folder."

Defense attorneys have contended that Connell and Clinton believed that Maxwell, with White's help, recorded all fees. At one point, Touhey asked White, "Connell thought you were taking care of it, and you thought he was taking care of it, right?"

"Yes," she answered.

This was the "breakdown in communications" to which Kramer referred in his opening statement. From 1979 to 1981, he said, Connell and Clinton grossed more than $800,000 in their practice, and represented more than 6,000 clients in traffic, drunk driving and petty criminal cases.