C. McClain Haddow, former chief of staff of the Department of Health and Human Services, pleaded guilty yesterday to felony charges related to more than $55,000 in kickbacks he received through government speechwriting contracts and a charitable foundation he helped create.

Haddow, who delivered the plea to U.S. District Court Judge Gerhard A. Gesell as his trial was about to begin, faces up to four years in prison and $500,000 in fines on two conflict-of-interest counts. Prosecutors agreed to drop five related fraud charges, but did not promise to recommend leniency at Haddow's sentencing, which was set for Sept. 8.

In his plea, Haddow, 36, said he misled HHS officials and the nonprofit T. Bear Foundation by concealing his financial interest in two sets of contracts. He agreed to make restitution to the government and the private group, now called the Scrubby Bear Foundation, which uses a teddy bear symbol to publicize a hand-washing campaign aimed at preventing the spread of infections among children.

Haddow came under investigation last June when The Washington Post reported he secretly had routed more than $30,000 in payments from the T. Bear Foundation to his wife, Alice, through a secretary at a Washington consulting firm who did no work for the money. Haddow was indicted in April, but prosecutors agreed yesterday not to seek charges against his wife.

Prosecutors disclosed in court that the couple also pocketed $21,790 of the $25,330 paid under federal contracts that Haddow arranged for a friend, supposedly to write speeches for Haddow's boss, former HHS secretary Margaret M. Heckler.

"You understand that each of these counts . . . carry a maximum sentence of two years {in prison}, and each carry a maximum fine of $250,000?" Gesell asked before accepting the plea.

"I do, your honor," Haddow said.

G. Allen Carver Jr., of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, called the agreement "a fair disposition and a reasonable disposition in this case, and certainly one which serves the public interest."

Haddow, a former Utah state representative and aide to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), left HHS last year and now runs a Washington consulting firm.

Haddow repeatedly denied in interviews last year with The Post that his wife played any role in the T. Bear Foundation.

But according to the charges he acknowledged yesterday, Haddow arranged for an associate, Michelle Magoon, to pay his wife 90 percent of the money Magoon received as a fundraiser for the foundation. Haddow, who served as an unpaid foundation vice president while at HHS, arranged Magoon's hiring and had her set up a one-person consulting firm to receive the monthly checks.

Carver said most of the fundraising was done by Haddow and his wife, who received $33,540 of the $37,400 paid to Magoon from December 1984 through September 1985. Haddow solicited donations from several health care corporations, on one occasion at a 1984 luncheon hosted by Heckler.

Haddow acknowledged in the plea that he helped Magoon prepare phony invoices and signed a "false and misleading" HHS waiver saying he had no financial interest in the T. Bear Foundation. Foundation officials alerted the Justice Department when they learned of the payments to Alice Haddow.

On the second charge, Haddow acknowledged that he arranged for Gordon Jones, now a vice president at the Heritage Foundation, and his wife, Susan H. Jones, to receive six contracts to write speeches for Heckler. The 1984 and 1985 contracts ostensibly were awarded because the Joneses could write "in a style like Margaret Heckler's," the indictment said.

Haddow, who bypassed the HHS speechwriting staff, determined the department should pay the couple as much as $2,000 a speech for 14 speeches. Haddow also told Gordon Jones to pass on almost 90 percent of the payments to Alice Haddow.

Heckler, now U.S. ambassador to Ireland, was not implicated in any wrongdoing. She was scheduled to testify if the case went to trial.

Carver said Haddow's actions violated federal conflict-of-interest laws because he personally and substantially participated in HHS matters in which he or his wife had a financial interest.