The Republican-backed challenger for Arlington sheriff has accused incumbent James A. Gondles Jr. of a conflict of interest because athletic clothing for inmates was purchased from the sheriff's father-in-law.

The allegations were made by Ronald B. Hager, who resigned as Gondles' chief deputy this year to run for sheriff.

Gondles said recently that about $3,000 was spent in 1984 through 1986 from a "canteen" account to buy gym clothes for the inmates from a Westchester County, N.Y., men's store owned by his father-in-law, Stanley B. Levine. Money in the account is used to buy goods for inmates' use.

The account usually holds "several thousand dollars" and is under the direct control of the sheriff, according to Gondles.

Gondles said "it was Ron Hager's idea to do business with my father-in-law," and that the decision was "a convenience" because "we were having trouble stocking items."

Hager denied that he initiated the purchases but said he was aware of the matter as Gondles' chief aide. "It wasn't my place to say, 'That's not right, we shouldn't do that,' " he said.

Hager said he does not know if Gondles' actions are a violation of state conflict-of-interest laws and has not asked for any formal investigation by the commonwealth's attorney's office. "It's an issue Arlington voters can decide," said Hager.

Commonwealth's Attorney Helen F. Fahey said she "does not have enough facts" to comment.

Hager said Gondles' alleged conflict of interest has been "compounded" by a recent $250 contribution to the sheriff's campaign from Levine.

In an interview from New Rochelle, N.Y., Levine said his campaign contribution had "nothing to do with the business {Gondles} gave us. I gave because he's my daughter's husband."

Levine said he charged the sheriff's department 10 percent above wholesale prices "for handling" on the athletic clothing. This is far below his normal markup, he said.

Hager said a 1984 audit of the department by the National Sheriff's Association suggested that there be line-item review of the account. Hager said Gondles ignored that recommendation.

Gondles said such oversight was unnecessary to determine "whether we buy . . . 15 sets of Monopoly" for the inmates.

However Gondles asked the state last month to audit all the accounts in his department, including the canteen account. "I want the peace of mind of knowing no employe or former employe of my office is guilty of doing anything illegal," he said.