The highest ranking corrections officer on duty Dec. 7 when the D.C. Jail exceeded a court-ordered inmate population ceiling testified yesterday in U.S. District Court here that he lied to the court during a Dec. 17 hearing on the incident.

Capt. John Pendergraph told U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant that he did not tell the truth at that hearing when he testified that no one had ordered him to call an operator at Lorton Reformatory and change the inmate count to show that the jail was in compliance.

The extraordinary admission came during a day-long hearing at which lawyers for the District government admitted that some Corrections Department officials and employes had engaged in a "deliberate effort to the conceal the truth" about the violation from the court and Director of Corrections James Palmer.

While describing the actual violation of the inmate population ceiling as relatively minor, Bryant called the cover-up "reprehensible" but seemed to agree with city attorneys who argued that the District should not be held in civil contempt, which attorneys for the inmates requested, because recently instituted procedures should prevent a recurrence.

Palmer, who took the witness stand after hearing frequently conflicting stories from corrections officers and department officials about what happened on Dec. 7, told Bryant that after he learned of the violation -- three days after it occurred -- he "issued the strongest memorandum I could put on paper" to ensure that he is notified immediately of any future violation.

Under that order, corrections officials at the jail must notify him personally, Palmer said, rather than depending on word reaching him through the "chain of command," the system in use at the time of the earlier incident.

Visibly angry and with his voice rising, Palmer singled out Assistant Corrections Director Marion Daniel Strickland as the person he held responsible for failing to follow that command chain, saying that when he first learned of the violation he was so upset that he "asked Strickland to leave my office."

Pendergraph and Jail Administrator William Long have testified, and did so again yesterday, that they told Strickland on Dec. 7 that the inmate population had exceeded the court-ordered limit of 1,694, and two corrections officials said Pendergraph told them that he had notified Strickland.

Strickland denied yesterday that he was told about the violation, the same assertion he made in testimony he gave in a hearing on Dec. 17 and in a subsequent deposition.

Palmer said after the hearing that he was investigating the Dec. 7 violation and but would not take any possible disciplinary action until after the matter is resolved in court. That is not expected for at least two weeks. Bryant said lawyers for inmates who brought the suit that resulted in the population limit have five days in which to request actions that the court might take or penalties that it might impose.

Under an August order by Bryant, the number of inmates housed at the D.C. Jail is not to exceed 1,694. If the cap is exceeded, the court is supposed to be notified within 24 hours. If the cap is exceeded for more than 24 hours, the order provides for a freeze on admissions to the detention center.

The notification of the Dec. 7 violation was not made until four days later and only after Patrick Hickey, one of the inmates' attorneys, noticed that the official director's "count sheet" showed that there were 1,742 inmates at the time of the 4 a.m. count.

Pendergraph testified yesterday that jail administrator Long told him to alter the jail's official 4 a.m. count and to call the Lorton operator -- who compiles the figures for the director's count -- and change the number of inmates to 1,679, the number that remained at the jail at 7:30 a.m., after the completion of transfers to Lorton and elsewhere that had been delayed.

The Lorton operator who took the corrected figures noted them on a separate sheet or paper but did not change the official form.

Lt. Col. Bernard Leo Braxton, the commanding officer at the jail, said that when Long discovered that the higher figure was on the report, Long said, "I'm going to demote me a captain," apparently referring to Pendergraph.

Pendergraph is facing a disciplinary procedure in the incident, but corrections officials would not provide details.

Long denied that he ordered the official count changed but acknowledged ordering Pendergraph to make up an official compliance sheet reflecting the lower number. He said that he ordered a "shift" count sheet altered to show the 1,679 figure.

Meanwhile, Deputy Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen and D.C. Mayor Marion Barry each appointed a "point man" to represent the federal government and the District in discussions aimed at selecting a new prison site in the city and resolving the prison crowding crisis.

Royce C. Lamberth, chief of the civil division of the U.S. attorney's office for the District, will represent the Justice Department and will work with the city's acting corporation counsel, John H. Suda, in trying to select a site, according to a statement released by the U.S. attorney's office and the city.

The statement said that Lamberth and Suda had "several conversations" yesterday about where to build a prison. Both men declined to comment on what sites were mentioned.