Records of expenditures from Mayor Marion Barry's ceremonial fund were released to The Washington Post last week as a result of a 14-month legal battle that included a last-ditch attempt by city officials to block The Post from publishing any reports on the expenditures.

City officials had asked for a protective order for the documents, which Post attorneys said was actually a request for prior restraint of the press, and said that publication of details about the expenditures at the same time they are under investigation by a federal grand jury could hamper "the government's ability to conduct its business."

"Their {The Post's} reporters will be able to write and speculate and possibly create more mischief," Frederick D. Cooke Jr., the city's acting corporation counsel, argued in a hearing Wednesday before D.C. Superior Court Judge Gladys Kessler.

It was the penultimate twist in the lawsuit, which was filed in July 1986 after the city refused to turn over records of expenditures from the mayor's ceremonial fund between October 1982 and July 1986, pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Only when the documents on the ceremonial fund were released to Post attorneys late Friday was it learned that the city apparently does not have any documents on expenditures from the mayor's ceremonial fund from October 1982 to June 1984.

The affidavit filed by George Thomas III, controller of the mayor's executive office, left it unclear when the city discovered that many documents were missing. The affidavit disclosed that the city had edited out most names contained in the documents, other than the mayor's and those of his staff.

The Post's attorney, Nancy Priess, said yesterday that it was uncertain whether additional legal action might be taken to obtain the information. "I can't say without conducting an examination to determine what wasn't handed over versus what simply doesn't exist," Priess said.

It is at least the second time that the newspaper has discovered that elements were missing from records turned over by the city in connection with the suit.

The first occurred last summer, shortly after the suit was filed, when Barry's then-Chief of Staff Carol Thompson delivered several documents to the newspaper along with a letter stating that the city had "exceeded the demands of the law."

But in a deposition 23 days later, Thompson revealed that city officials had never intended to turn over the ceremonial fund documents, and that they did not plan to tell anyone that the documents were not being handed over.

Kessler later imposed sanctions on the city for filing a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that it had delivered the documents and there was no longer a need for legal action, when city officials knew that they continued to withhold materials that had been requested.

The city argued that The Post should have realized that documents relating to the ceremonial fund were being withheld because documents for the fund had been withheld when The Post made a similar but separate request in 1982.

Kessler said the argument lacked candor and that the city was not abiding by its own freedom of information law.

"It must be remembered that at the time a {Freedom of Information Act} request is submitted, the government has a tremendous advantage in that only it knows what documents it has and which of those may be responsive to the request," Kessler said in a Dec. 12 opinion imposing sanctions on the city.

" . . . Unaware that certain information was not provided, the public inquirer would have no realistic opportunity to even challenge the legal theories for the nondisclosure of documents," Kessler said.

The judge ruled on March 9 that the documents relating to the mayor's ceremonial fund were not subject to legitimate exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act and ordered the city to turn over the information.

The city asked the court to delay the order, but Kessler turned down the request. City lawyers then asked for a stay pending appeal in the D.C. Court of Appeals. Post lawyers agreed not to press for delivery of the documents while the case was before the appeals court.

The appeals court denied the stay on Aug. 10, ruling that the city had not met the legal requirement for showing that irreparable harm would result from disclosure of the ceremonial and security fund records.

The documents on the ceremonial fund then were to be released Aug. 25, but the newspaper agreed to a delay until Aug. 28, providing that the information would be delivered.

Two Washington Post reporters waited five hours that Friday at the corporation counsel's office. At 6 p.m., they were told that the city had asked Kessler to issue an emergency order stating that the documents did not have to be relinquished or, if they had to be turned over, prohibiting The Post from disclosing their content in a news story.