A lawyer for former D.C. deputy mayor Ivanhoe Donaldson has described Donaldson as a "tireless worker . . . for this city" and urged a federal judge to spare him a prison sentence and instead order him to perform community service.

Robert P. Watkins, the lawyer, submitted a proposal to U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell on Thursday to allow Donaldson to work full time without pay for the Council of Churches of Greater Washington, helping to operate a soup kitchen and assisting the homeless.

Donaldson, 44, who pleaded guilty last month to defrauding the D.C. government systematically of more than $190,000, tax fraud and obstruction of justice, is prepared to repay the city, according to Watkins. On Monday, he faces a maximum sentence of 23 years in prison and a $360,000 fine.

Watkins noted in a presentencing memorandum that Donaldson was left with little in savings after a long involvement in civil rights efforts and local politics, including the 10 years he managed the political career of Mayor Marion Barry.

"If he had left government service sooner, or handled his financial affairs better, or had been a better businessman, perhaps he would not be in this position before the court," Watkins said.

By August 1981, when Donaldson began stealing city funds, he was experiencing financial problems, and the problems worsened when a soda distribution business that he started failed shortly after he became deputy mayor in January 1983, according to Watkins.

Watkins introduced to the court 40 letters in support of Donaldson from friends, business executives and political associates, including D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke, former city administrator Elijah B. Rogers and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young.

"I was wrong in what I did," Donaldson said in a two-page handwritten letter submitted to Gesell, the presiding judge. "I don't want to degrade this situation any further by offering excuses or a rationale for acts which I know were wrong. There really isn't any justification for what I did, and the acts went against the grain of every value I hold dear to life.

"I am not only shocked and disappointed with my behavior for having defrauded a community that has shared so much love with me, but I am devastated by the violent emotional scars that I have left on my family, my friends and myself," Donaldson said. He said he chose to write a letter instead of speaking at his sentencing because "my own tension and stress probably would not allow me to communicate well."

Watkins said that if Gesell concludes that Donaldson should serve time in prison, it should be for six months, followed by extended community service work.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Daniel J. Bernstein and David Geneson, who also filed a presentencing memo Thursday, asked Gesell to sentence Donaldson to a long prison term. The prosecutors described Donaldson as a "predator" and said that "the abuse of trust and misuse of power in this case call for a sentence of a substantial period of incarceration."

Watkins said in his memo that Donaldson admits that he committed the acts specified in the formal charges against him but disputes much of the additional details provided by prosecutors in a long oral statement they made in court at the time of his plea.

For example, Watkins said, the formal charge against Donaldson said he obstructed an investigation of him conducted by the city's inspector general, but Donaldson did not attempt to interfere with the federal grand jury that investigated him. The prosecutor's presentencing memo stated that Donaldson sought to thwart the grand jury investigation.

Prosecutors said that Donaldson's chronic financial woes date to 1976 but that his earnings from the District government and from private firms after he left the city government were substantial. Donaldson was being paid $63,700 a year by the city government when he resigned in October 1983 to become a vice president of E.F. Hutton & Co. Donaldson's wife Winifred has been employed by the city since March 1982 and is paid $41,563 a year as a special assistant in the city's bureau of parking services.

After he left city government, Donaldson obtained consulting contracts worth more than $320,000 from firms and developers seeking business with the city, in addition to his E.F. Hutton salary, which was $140,000 a year in 1984, prosecutors said.

Among the consulting fees cited by prosecutors was one for $25,000 from the Sperry Corp., which hired Donaldson as a consultant for five months in 1984 to advise the company on its efforts to get a city traffic signal contract, a company spokesman said yesterday. Sperry did not get the contract, city and Sperry officials said.

Prosecutors said that a development team headed by Western Development Corp. agreed in April 1984 to pay Donaldson $250,000 in consulting fees if it won the rights to develop the Portal site, the last major redevelopment parcel in Southwest Washington. The city's Redevelopment Land Agency voted 3 to 2 last September to award the project to the Western team.

The deciding vote was cast by the Rev. Ernest Gibson, a Redevelopment Land Agency board member who is executive director of the Council of Churches, the agency that has agreed to hire Donaldson as an unpaid worker if he is ordered to perform community service work.

Gibson could not be reached for comment yesterday. In a letter filed with the court, Gibson said he agreed to accept Donaldson after being contacted by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, which devised Donaldson's proposed sentencing plan.