Key trustees of the University of the District of Columbia testified before a City Council committee yesterday that a serious "breakdown" of internal controls at UDC enabled former president Robert L. Green to break rules and spend university funds for personal items without the board's knowledge.

At the first council hearing on financial practices at the publicly financed university, UDC Board Chairman Ronald H. Brown and trustee Daniel I. Fivel said the 15-member board of trustees was unaware of a host of questionable expenditures by Green because the former president ordered the university's internal auditor to report to him instead of to the trustees.

"In our recent investigation of Dr. Green, we discovered a disastrous breakdown," said Fivel, chairman of the board's finance and audit committee. He said the university auditor told the board "that Dr. Green expressly forbade him to report directly to the board without first going to the president."

While Brown and Fivel defended the board's record as the overseer of UDC's finances, several members of the council's education committee and D.C. Auditor Otis H. Troupe criticized the trustees for allowing Green's spending to go unchecked despite warnings that financial safeguards were not working at the school.

Troupe, testifying before the committee yesterday evening about a number of audits he is conducting of UDC accounts, said that Mayor Marion Barry and D.C. Secretary Clifton B. Smith had broken the law by refusing to provide information needed for Troupe's review of contracts awarded by the city government and paid for by UDC.

The auditor sharply criticized the trustees for operating "in a vacuum" and recommended that the council "examine whether the president and members of the board of trustees were unduly influenced by the executive such that the university's independence was compromised."

Green resigned under pressure on Aug. 23 after news reports and disclosures by Troupe that he had misspent thousands of dollars of university funds for travel, consulting, and personal items. Green was not present at the six-hour hearing, which featured several testy exchanges between education committee chairman Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large) and UDC officials.

Council members focused most of their questions on the role of the trustees in monitoring expenditures by the UDC president and the university's refusal to turn over documents to the news media and the D.C. auditor.

"How did we get to this point? How did things get to such a crisis?" asked council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large). "What has been the role of the board?"

Brown and Fivel said the trustees had no reason to think that the Green administration was misusing university funds because a series of annual audits had produced no evidence that the university's budget was being overspent.

Fivel, who came under harsh questioning as the chairman of the board committee that reviews university accounts, said one particular set of funds had been abused but that the trustees "must receive a warning of abuse from the internal auditor."

"Those who had a moral obligation of inform us . . . will have to search their consciences," Fivel said.

The internal auditor, Samuel Halsey, was present but did not testify.

Troupe said Barry had refused to provide records needed for a review of a transfer of $125,000 from UDC to the office of then-D.C. Secretary Dwight S. Cropp's office in fiscal 1984. Troupe said that the funds could have been used "indirectly" to pay the salary of board chairman Ronald H. Brown's wife, Alma Brown, who was hired by Cropp in February 1984 to a $43,000-a-year position in the secretary's office.

Cropp, now a UDC vice president, also awarded a $10,000 consulting contract to a longtime associate of Green, Cassandra A. Simmons, a few months earlier.

"It cannot be conclusively stated that Mrs. Brown was paid with UDC funds during fiscal year 1984," Troupe said. "Available evidence suggests however that the position could have been indirectly paid in 1984 from UDC funds made available to the Office of the Secretariat for the performance of various services."

Troupe said that "stonewalling tactics made it extremely difficult to eliminate the possibility of impropriety" in the contracts made to Alma Brown and Simmons, a former student of Green at Michigan State University who also received $37,200 in consulting fees from UDC. Green was a dean at Michigan State prior to becoming UDC president in September 1983.

Ronald Brown and other top city officials told The Washington Post last month that an incorrect personnel document, which notes that Alma Brown was to be paid with UDC funds, was responsible for the confusion over which agency is paying for her salary. Ronald Brown has said repeatedly that his wife has never received any UDC funds.

Mason sharply questioned Brown about the university's delays in providing information to Troupe and also suggested that the trustees had ignored her when she asked them earlier this year to look into allegations that Green had misspent UDC money.

"You told me I was dealing with trivia and minutiae," Mason said to Brown during a heated exchange. "I'm the person who brought the problem to you." Brown said he did not recall making such a remark to Mason.

Council members also questioned the board's approval of expenditures on the university president's residence, catering and receptions, travel, medical bills, and other perquisites in Green's $74,900-a-year contract that was due to expire in September 1988.