In the midst of what has been described as the most trying period of his 12-year political career, James A. Gondles Jr. was sworn in yesterday to his third term as Arlington sheriff in the presence of the county's Democratic leadership.

"I look forward to going back to work and running a safe institution," Gondles said after the ceremony, held in an Arlington courtroom packed with well-wishers. ". . . I try to do my job the best I can while I'm on the job."

Gondles said he planned no major changes in the operation of his office.

The 40-year-old sheriff begins his new term facing a pending sexual harassment suit brought by a current female deputy and testimony that he bullied top level staff and told two of them he had sex with women deputies and women who did business with the department.

Also, this week Gondles gave nine deputies who publicly supported his opponent during the November election the choice of being demoted to the department's lowest rank or being fired, a step that "disappointed" the president of the county's largest citizens group, the Arlington Civic Association, and disturbed other citizens who have called county officials.

Yesterday Gondles held individual meetings with six other deputies who had signed a campaign statement criticizing him. He said that because they were not in management positions, they could retain their jobs if they believed they could act in a professional manner.

"I told them I expected them to be supportive of the policies of the sheriff's department," he said.

During the ceremony, Gondles' wife Amy stood by his side. "He has worked very hard and he's doing a wonderful job for the community," said she later.

The public show of support for Gondles, who was reelected with 54 percent of the vote, reflects his longstanding ties to the Arlington political leadership, said elected officials interviewed yesterday.

Without exception, the officials expressed pleasure in Gondles' track record as sheriff and confidence in his ability to run the office. Most said they drew a line between Gondles' actions on and off the job and that they had no qualms with his on-the-job performance.

"As long as we have every evidence that the department is being run properly, I'm not sure the allegations about his sex life are my business," said County Board member Mary Margaret Whipple, who said she questioned Gondles about his promotional and hiring practices after the lawsuit was filed in March.

The suit alleges that Gondles asked a woman deputy, Debora Mulvey, to have sex with him, harassed her when she refused his advances, withheld her annual pay increase for two months and unduly criticized her work.

One elected official, who asked not to be named, said Gondles was called to several meetings attended by at least six elected officials after specific allegations were made in court papers filed before the campaign was under way. At the meetings, the official said, Gondles was questioned about the allegations. It was after those discussions that a decision was made to support his candidacy, the official said.

Since then, more allegations have been made in court depositions. Still, longtime supporters stand by him.

"Let's face it, the man's just been reelected and we're all anxious to see the sheriff's office fulfill its function," said Sen. Edward M. Holland (D-Arlington). "There obviously are some morale problems and it's the sheriff's responsibility to straighten them out. He's the boss, he's got to be the boss."

Gondles was reelected after an acrimonious campaign against his "Let's face it, the man's just been reelected and we're all anxious to see the sheriff's office fulfill its function."

-- Sen. Edward M. Holland

former chief deputy, Ronald Hager, a Republican-backed independent who left his job to run against Gondles. During the campaign, Hager accused Gondles of mismanagement and inappropriate use of departmental money. Gondles denied the allegations.

David Foster, chairman of the Arlington Civic Association, said concern remains about the tenor of the campaign and the accusations after the election. "I think if I was on the County Board, I would be a little embarrassed by this," Foster said. "It sort of besmirches our image."

In a related matter, Alexandria Circuit Court Judge Alfred Swersky ordered last week that the file in the sexual harassment case against Gondles be sealed.

Swersky refused to answer questions yesterday about his actions and would not comment on the reasons he ordered material sealed that had previously been available.