The former commander of the D.C. police department's troubled 4th District yesterday defended the department against allegations of corruption, confirming that he had heard a tape recording of a drug dealer saying that officers tipped off the dealer to a massive drug raid but adding that the statement was "unsubstantiated."

Retired deputy chief James P. Shugart, in the first account publicly offered by a principal in the events under investigation, said that the officer who made the secret recording of his conversations with a drug dealer was told in December to turn the information over to the department's Internal Affairs Division. Shugart said he did not know if the officer had done so.

In a conflicting account, the officer has told acquaintances that he was ordered -- by a ranking 4th District official other than Shugart -- to destroy the tapes and drop an investigation he had been told to conduct into the allegations contained in them, sources said. Previously, it has been reported that it was unclear what happened to the officer's investigation.

Shugart, in a news conference at the Washington Plaza Hotel that was arranged by the police department's public information office, blasted the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office for their handling of an FBI investigation of alleged police corruption. The former official, who retired in July, also criticized the news media for accounts of the probe and rapped Assistant Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. for decisions he made about the drug raid, dubbed Operation Caribbean Cruise.

Shugart said he was especially angry at a story in The Washington Post two days ago incorrectly reporting that he had received an official reprimand from D.C. Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr. for mismanaging the investigation that led to Caribbean Cruise.

The information was provided by ranking sources who were recontacted by the Post yesterday. The sources said they have determined that the information was incorrect and that Shugart did not receive an official reprimand.

The FBI is currently investigating allegations that some members of the 4th District vice squad kept drugs and money they seized during raids and possibly leaked police plans for Caribbean Cruise to suspects in advance of the February 1986 raid, which was touted as the biggest in the city's history but yielded few arrests and little drugs.

The federal probe was begun after a number of D.C. police officers complained to the U.S. attorney's office that the department had refused to launch an internal investigation of the skimming allegations.

Shugart said that no such allegations were brought to him by police while he commanded the 4th District from July 1984 to January 1987.

The U.S. attorney's office announced last week that it will drop charges in 300 to 400 drug cases investigated by the 4th District vice squad because of the skimming allegations. According to sources, one of the primary reasons behind the move is allegations that 4th District vice officers routinely lied under oath to judges to obtain search warrants.

"We have the cart before the horse now," Shugart said. "The criminals, the drug dealers in particular, have all been set free.

"Where is the sense of criminal justice in this community when we condemn our officers before we condemn those who are involved in illegal drug activities?" he said, criticizing the U.S. attorney's decision to drop the cases, and media accounts of the probe.

Shugart also chided federal law enforcement agencies for not assisting D.C. police in the original investigation that led to Caribbean Cruise, saying that the FBI "couldn't assist us in a criminal investigation that would aid our community in combatting an epidemic {drug} problem . . . , but from the articles in the paper, they jumped at the chance to investigate a few officers who have been accused of corruption. Where do their priorities lie?"

An FBI spokeswoman, citing the bureau's continuing investigation, would not comment on Shugart's remarks or whether the police department approached the FBI for help at the onset of Carribean Cruise.

Shugart, warning that vice officers are exposed to unusual temptations, noted that they frequently are immersed in a "criminal environment," adding, "I'm sure it's a very tight rope to walk to make sure that you don't go over to the other side."

He said that officers should be assigned to a vice unit for no more than two years to guard against that danger.

The D.C. police department has refused to comment on any aspect of the continuing federal probe since Aug. 28, the day after The Washington Post reported that the FBI, without informing Turner or the department's Internal Affairs Division, was investigating the skimming allegations.

Shugart, who has said little of Caribbean Cruise since it was staged on Feb. 22, 1986, declared yesterday, "It's time for me to speak up before the public believes that the whole Metropolitan Police Department has turned corrupt."

Shugart complained that, in addition to the FBI's refusal to assist in Caribbean Cruise, the massive drug sweep was hampered by a lack of cooperation inside the department.

Shugart said that because of an agreement with the police union, more than 500 officers who participated in Caribbean Cruise had to have 30 days' notice of a change in their job assignment for the city to avoid paying them overtime wages. During the 30-day period, Shugart said, it became clear that suspects knew that the raids were imminent and so the operation was delayed.

He said that he sought to avoid the 30-day delay by requesting that the officers be called in on an emergency basis but that Fulwood, the number two official in the department, denied the request, citing the union agreement.

Shugart said he was later told that Turner was not aware the request had been made. "I think in trying to save a little money that we put our investigation in jeopardy," Shugart said.

Internal affairs investigated Caribbean Cruise but closed its investigation without pinpointing the source of leaks. Subsequently, Shugart said, an officer secretly recorded a conversation with a known drug dealer in which the dealer said he had been tipped off about the raid by a member of the 4th District vice unit.

The tape was played for Turner in his office last year, and Turner gave the officer 30 days to develop the information, Shugart said. The former deputy chief said Turner subsequently gave the officer an extension, but the officer came up with "a lot of allegations that were unsubstantiated. Talk's cheap."

Shugart said the officer's lieutenant ordered him to take the information to internal affairs and that Shugart relayed this to Turner. Shugart said that he did not know if the officer did so.

Sources said that the lieutenant gave copies of the tapes to internal affairs on Monday.