Joseph A. Nesline, 67, often described by law enforcement officials as a leading figure in Washington gambling circles, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court yesterday to evading payment of taxes on income that he had declared on a federal tax return.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph F. McSorley said in court that Nesline had filed an income tax form for 1976, declaring more than $30,000 in income but had failed to pay more than $7,000 in tax owed. The Internal Revenue Service has focused most of its enforcement efforts against persons who fail to file tax forms or under-report taxable income. Federal officials yesterday said that the Nesline case was believed to be the first here in which a criminal prosecution had been brought for failure to pay taxes on declared income.

The Newline case culminated a three-year investigation by IRS agent John R. Price. The tax evasion charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail and a $10,000 fine. However as part of a plea bargain, the government has agreed to recommend to the court that Nesline be subject to no more than one year and one day in jail and the maximum fine. Judge Joyce Hens Green scheduled sentencing for May 11.