Prince George's County businessman Jack Long first encountered Hugh "Reds" Robey in 1952 when he and the lanky, redheaded laborer for the county parks department were digging holes for installation of a merry-go-round.

"He was just a teenager, a big, handsome fellow, one of about five people they had working for them at that time. We worked all day digging holes and pouring cement, and I think we split $25 between us," Long said.

During the next 38 years, Robey, 59, of Bowie, rose within the ranks of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to become its highest-paid employee -- the $110,000-a-year director of the Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation. The job, considered to be one of the most influential in the county bureaucracy, gave Robey control over a $100 million budget and a 16,000-acre network of parks and recreational facilities as well as a major voice in county land acquisition and development decisions.

Now, Robey, who was indicted Nov. 1 on state theft and misconduct charges, is at the center of a broad investigation by State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli into kickbacks, bribery, contract fraud and misuse of funds at the top levels of the park and planning commission, investigators say. The semi-autonomous agency, which serves both Prince George's and Montgomery counties, is funded through a special tax that residents pay with their county property taxes.

As director, Robey spearheaded the development of major projects such as the Enterprise Golf Course near Woodmore and the Prince George's Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro. The county won three gold medals from the National Sports Foundation under Robey's leadership, a fact that commission members cite as a major reason for Robey's longevity in the job.

"Hugh Robey cared about Prince George's County and gave us one of the best park systems in the country," said Margaret Yewell, a commission member from Prince George's. "He cared very much about all the programs. They were all his."

Robey, whose long-planned retirement became effective the day after his indictment, is charged with stealing $30,000 from the commission through a complex 1988 contract fraud that allegedly involved his son, Michael; a top park deputy, Albert J. Simons; and a Washington painting contractor, Junia Edward Dailey.

When Robey learned that the matter was under internal scrutiny, the indictment charges, he tried to cover up the theft by arranging to repay the agency with $30,000 in bribe money he received from another contractor. That person was Richard Coleman, according to the indictment, an old friend who owns the agency's favored paving firm. Investigators say Robey learned of the probe through his role as supervisor of the county's park police.

Robey's attorney, Joshua Treem, said Robey intends to plead not guilty to the charges. "They've been investigating Hugh Robey for two years and they come up with this charge that he stole $30,000," Treem said. "They've made life miserable for him. We intend to mount a vigorous defense and will call the prosecution to its proof."

Law enforcement sources say the probe has branched into allegations that high-level officials used park employees and equipment for personal reasons and granted contracts to friends and relatives.

Three of Robey's four children work in agency jobs: His son Michael works as a $28,000-a-year welder; his son Hugh Jr. is a $31,000-a-year crew foreman in the park maintenance department; and his daughter, Joyce, has a $22,000-a-year office supervisor's job. His nephew, John, is a $30,000-a-year electrician for the agency.

Robey also served as a director of a private company owned by his son that received park contracts to weld hinges onto picnic tables, according to law enforcement sources. The agency's use of the now-defunct company, G&M HiTech Metal Specialties of Frederick, may have violated agency rules that forbid the commission to do business with companies in which employees or their relatives have a financial interest.

Robey, who owns a $175,000 house in Bowie, started at the commission in 1950 and worked as a truck driver, laborer, maintenance crew foreman, automotive shop foreman and police officer. After one administrative job, he was promoted in 1976 to the director of Parks and Recreation, maintaining the loyal following of the gardeners, mechanics and maintenance workers with whom he had once worked in the county's park system.

Robey's job brought him into contact not only with the county's political leadership but also with leaders of the business and development community. He became an influential figure in the business world, serving on the board of Jefferson Bank.

He also is a director of a private foundation that raises money for park-related programs. Each September, the foundation sponsors an annual Reds Robey golf tournament, which this year raised more than $36,000 for park programs for children. Co-hosts for the event were Long, who now heads a fencing supply company, and developer Kenneth Michael, the head of the county's Industrial Development Authority.

Park employees say they first learned that Robey was under investigation more than a year ago when investigators from Montanarelli's office began questioning workers and examining agency records. Commission members say they were kept informed of the progress of the probe, but were not told that Robey was under investigation. Dozens of employees were interviewed, law enforcement sources said.

As word of the investigation and possible indictments spread through the county government, Robey's influence did not wane. He originally announced he would retire this summer, but the commission decided to keep Robey on under contract as acting director at a slightly reduced salary.

"The commission wanted to keep the most efficient operation possible," said spokeswoman Andrea Davey. "They didn't know the specifics of the investigation until right down to the wire." Commission members declined to discuss their reasons for keeping Robey in the job, pending completion of a national search for his successor.

In July, hundreds of county politicians, government workers and business leaders paid $45 per person for a "Salute to Reds Robey" at Martin's Crosswinds, a Greenbelt banquet hall.

Prince George's County Council Chairman JoAnn T. Bell, a longtime Robey friend, said she began her tribute with a statement of what she called a longstanding "fact of life" in the county.

"If you wanted a park in Prince George's County, Reds Robey was the man to see," she said.