Confusion, poor communication and misleading reports by top Illinois officials emerged today as key elements in the state's handling of what has become the nation's largest salmonella outbreak.

In an often rancorous hearing before an Illinois House committee, a succession of state officials described instances when important information about the epidemic was not shared quickly among top executives. Several officials also acknowledged exaggerations or misstatements about the speed and breadth of the state's probe into the poisonings.

More than 14,600 salmonella cases have been confirmed in Illinois and five neighboring states in the past six weeks, and two deaths have been linked to the outbreak. A now-closed suburban Chicago dairy, operated by the Jewel Cos. Inc., a major supermarket chain, has been identified as the source.

Under questioning, former state health director Thomas Kirkpatrick said at least a day elapsed before he learned that several suburban health officials had recommended closing the Hillfarms Dairy as the suspected source of the salmonella. He added that he did not tell Gov. James R. Thompson (R) or any of the governor's top aides.

Kirkpatrick also said he learned from reporters rather than health officials that the same dairy was suspected of a minor salmonella episode last August.

Thompson fired Kirkpatrick last month after learning that the health director had been vacationing in Mexico in the outbreak's early days, when several public statements by the state health department made it appear that he was at work.

Kirkpatrick said he thought that Thompson and the governor's chief aide, James Reilly, knew about his vacation plans.

Reilly told the legislative committee on state operations that he had assumed that Kirkpatrick was staying on the job to oversee the department's handling of the crisis.

"It never occurred to me he hadn't changed his plans and come back," Reilly said, adding that he had received no inquiries about the state's handling of the emergency during the first two weeks of the outbreak.

Another witness, Illinois Inspector General Jeremy Margolis, acknowledged that a confidential memo prepared for the governor by the health department erred in asserting that a team of state and federal officials had inspected the dairy March 30. Margolis said the inspection took place April 2.

Margolis was acting health director when the erroneous report was made and said he was "furious" when he discovered it.

The hearings are expected to continue into next week. The Democrat-controlled committee's hidden target may be Thompson, who is contemplating running next year for a fourth term after eight years in office. His standing in recent polls has declined, apparently reflecting the salmonella crisis.

Among those joining in the tough questioning of his aides today was House Speaker Mike Madigan, a strong contender for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.