DETROIT, JUNE 5 -- Warren E. Barge Jr., the Detroit businessman who is a central figure in the federal probe of D.C. contracting, said yesterday that western-style boots were given to David E. Rivers, a top District official, after Rivers picked up a large dinner tab for Barge and several others.

The boots were "a courtesy thing as far as I was concerned," Barge said. "It was no problem."

The boots are a key element in the probe. Federal investigators are trying to determine whether Rivers, the former head of the Department of Human Services, received the boots in return for steering contracts from the agency to B&C Management Consultants Inc., a company set up by an undercover FBI agent and Barge, who said he was not aware that his partner was an agent.

Two pairs of western boots, along with a gun and a substance that sources said federal authorities suspect is cocaine, were confiscated from Rivers' home during a search by FBI agents on May 22. FBI agents were searching for three pairs of boots, valued at $800, that were inscribed with an FBI agent's credential number, according to the search warrants.

Sources have said that the boots were used in a 17-month undercover "sting" operation. Search warrants filed at U.S. District Court described them as two pairs of Justin iguana leather boots and a pair of Tony Lama boa western-style boots, size 8 1/2 D.

Barge said he and several other people met at the Broker Restaurant at 713 Eighth St. SE for dinner and that Rivers charged the cost of the meal, about $400, to his American Express card.

"We were drinking, celebrating, a lot of us," Barge said. The boots were given "out of gratitude for his picking up such a large check. That is all it was."

Barge declined to name those who gathered at the Broker or to say what they were celebrating. He said his B&C partner, an undercover FBI agent with the code name Len Carey, gave the boots to Rivers. Barge said he approved the action.

"I okayed it," Barge said.

Barge previously has said that Rivers did not steer contracts to B&C, adding that the company obtained two D.C. contracts without assistance from Rivers or John Clyburn, a D.C. businessman who is also a central figure in the probe. Investigators are trying to determine whether Clyburn acted as a middleman in obtaining city contracts. Clyburn has denied any wrongdoing.

Rivers, who is secretary of the District, took administrative leave after the investigation was disclosed. Rivers denied that he received the pairs of boots in exchange for giving contracts to Barge.

Yesterday, John Mercer, Rivers' attorney, said he was not in a position to confirm or deny Barge's explanation of how Rivers obtained the boots.

"It {Barge's comments} would be important if we were in court and we were putting on our defense right now," Mercer said. "We do have a defense to everything we have heard so far but it wouldn't be prudent to discuss it. If we give out factual defenses now, the government can go behind our backs and try to manipulate it."

Mercer maintained that the issue is not what Rivers' defense will be but why federal officials have disclosed information "that should be confidential before the grand jury."