Twin, high-ranking officers of the Howard County Sheriff's Department told a trial board Monday that Nazi salutes and "Hogan's Heroes"-style jokes have been a running gag among several members of their department for a decade.

Maj. Donald L. Pruitt, second in command, and his twin brother, Sgt. Dennis L. Pruitt, third in command and in charge of internal investigations, were suspended with pay in April after their Nazi mimicry was reported in the Baltimore Sun.

The 40-year-old brothers are charged with conduct unbecoming officers and abuse of authority for allegedly blocking the attempts of deputy sheriffs to report them. If found guilty, they could be fired.

Earlier in the hearings, being conducted by a panel of three officials from other sheriffs' departments, former Howard County sheriff Virginia Donnelly and outgoing Sheriff Herbert Stonesifer testified that they had ordered the brothers to stop the Nazi mimicry. The Pruitts said they received no such orders.

They said it was part of the office humor to exchange stiff-arm salutes and greetings such as "Sieg Heil."

Yet 13 of the department's 20 deputies were concerned enough to take their complaints to a newspaper reporter in March because "Major Pruitt . . . blocked them from getting to the sheriff," said Assistant Maryland Attorney General Mark Bowen, a prosecutor in the case.

Deputies testifying against the Pruitts before Montgomery County Sheriff Raymond M. Kight (D) and Maj. Jessie Bane and Sgt. Wilson Knight of the Harford County Sheriff's Department conceded that they had had run-ins with the Pruitts.

They said they found the Nazi mimicry offensive. When they tried to complain to Stonesifer, they were blocked by the Pruitts, deputies said.

Pruitt defense attorney Michael Marshall told the board that Stonesifer took action only because of election-year pressure. The issue grew as the campaign heated, and Stonesifer was defeated in the Democratic primary in September.

Stonesifer had banned the Pruitts from the county courthouse offices of the sheriff's department in April, immediately after the publicity.

The Pruitts filed a $1.5 million suit against Stonesifer and the Sheriff's Department.

Donald Pruitt testified Monday that he shared an interest in history with others in the department and that literature and newspaper clippings about the Nazi era in Germany were brought to him by other deputies. Earlier this year, when some books and pamphlets were given to him, he returned them without reading them because "I thought I was being set up," he said.

Deputies testified that the Pruitts made references to Nazi flags, burned the wings off insects and made antisemitic remarks. But the Pruitts said their remarks or actions had been misinterpreted, perhaps deliberately, by underlings who wanted to retaliate for discipline the Pruitts had handed out.

Both brothers testified under questioning from their attorney that they believed the real motivation for the accusations against them were political, came from disgrunted employees and were aimed at a "coup d'etat" to remove the ranking officers of the department.

The Pruitts said their suspension has been humiliating and has led to emotional and physical problems. The brothers, former county police officers, said they want to return to their jobs and would bear no grudge against their accusers. Both said they have been undergoing psychological therapy since April, when they apologized to county residents.

The apology followed an angry outpouring by local clergy, some of whom met with the Pruitts. But the Pruitts continued to insist in testimony that others in the Sheriff's Department had engaged in the same behavior. Those deputies lied in their testimonies, Dennis Pruitt said, "because if they didn't, they'd be sitting in this seat."

Stonesifer smiled at their Nazi mimicry, Pruitt said, and issued an order to stop only in the presence of a Baltimore Sun reporter in April.

Both brothers testified that they have never been a member of any Nazi group. The hearing is scheduled to resume today.