The California state attorney general's office has begun to investigate an international religious group that so far has declined to verify that it is helping starving Ethiopians although it collected millions of dollars for the cause.

International Christian Aid, a part of Inter-Aid Inc. based in Camarillo, Calif., has placed newspaper advertisements, sent out mailings and bought time on several television stations and the Cable News Network to ask for contributions for Ethiopian relief. But the president of a French volunteer organization that was to channel some Inter-Aid money to Ethiopia said today that "we never got a penny from them" after discussions last summer about providing $15,000 in medical supplies.

At a brief news conference at the group's headquarters, Inter-Aid communications director Nello Pinelli said $10,000 had been sent to the French group and $160,000 had been sent to an Inter-Aid medical team in Ethiopia. Pinelli said he had documented proof the money had been sent, but declined to show it.

When a reporter asked if any of the money had been spent on purely religious evangelical work, Pinelli said, "I'm cutting this off," and returned to his office.

An estimated $100 million has been raised from American donors in the past few months for relief of a devastating African famine, charity officials said. Most of that money has gone to reputable groups who have been working in Africa, the officials said, but constitutional protections have prohibited regular government checks of the finances of fund-raisers such as Inter-Aid that claim a religious affiliation.

Carole Kornblum, California's assistant attorney general for charitable trusts enforcement, said today, however, that her office can investigate possible mismanagement by religious fund-raisers if they seek money from the general population for a cause that is not exclusively religious.

She said Deputy Attorney General Peter Shack had been assigned today to review Inter-Aid's financial records.

Penalties for civil fraud in cases where officials of a charity have misappropriated funds include returning the funds to the charity and removal of any directors guilty of misappropriation. In some cases, money not spent for the intended cause could be collected as a penalty and given to a court-approved charity for use in that same cause.

Alerted by potential donors to Inter-Aid's Ethiopian fund-raising campaign, the Philanthropic Advisory Service of the Council of Better Business Bureaus Inc. issued a report on the California organization in December. Elizabeth Doherty, director of the Arlington-based service, said Inter-Aid officials were "very cooperative" with the investigation, but her group concluded Inter-Aid failed to meet four of the council's 22 standards for charitable solicitations.

The service's report said Inter-Aid spent only 41 percent of its public contributions on programs described in its solicitations, with the rest going to administrative and promotional costs and various activities to spread the evangelical religious views of the organization's leaders.

The organization also failed to publish an annual report and did not provide enough information on its fund-raising activities to allow for "informed decisions" by donors, the service said.

William T. White, vice president of another charity rating group, the National Charities Information Bureau, said it kept Inter-Aid off its approved list because of the lack of an annual report and a provision in Inter-Aid's bylaws giving its founder and president, L. Joe Bass, a veto over actions of its board of directors.

Just what constitutes a reasonable allocation of funds to the cause for which they were contributed can only be decided in court, Kornblum said. Recent decisions by the Supreme Court, she said, "have made it very difficult to put a cap on fund-raising costs."

A spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development said he did not know if Inter-Aid money had reached Ethiopia, but confirmed that the organization was not among about 170 private groups with which the U.S. government is cooperating in the Ethiopian relief effort.

According to today's New York Times, Pinelli said the Ethiopian government would not accept direct assistance from the Christian group, so it was chaneling aid through the French organization.

Today the president of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), Dr. Rony Brauman, said Max Wennen, an Inter-Aid official in Kenya, contacted the group's Paris headquarters in July and met with Brauman in August to discuss a $15,000 contribution.

Brauman said Wennen telexed Paris Sept. 10 to ask what the group needed. Brauman said he responded Sept. 13 with a request for special medicines and medical supplies, but "this is the last time we had any contact with them."