Former attorney general Edwin Meese III was awarded $460,509 yesterday for legal expenses he incurred during a special prosecutor's criminal investigation.

Independent counsel James McKay declined to prosecute Meese at the conclusion of the investigation, which was expanded several times to include a variety of conflict-of-interest allegations against the attorney general.

The independent counsel division of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the government should pay $460,509 of the $575,598 in legal fees and costs claimed by Meese's defense lawyers, Nathan Lewin and James Rocap.

Among the $115,000 worth of expenses the court disallowed was a claim of $16,652 by Meese's lawyers for time spent talking to reporters about the case.

Under independent counsel law, Meese is entitled to government reimbursement for reasonable legal fees because he was not indicted as a result of the 14-month investigation.

Among other things, Meese was investigated for possible ethics law violations for intervening to help Wedtech Corp. obtain a lucrative defense contract at a time when his longtime friend E. Bob Wallach was a consultant for the company. Wallach has been convicted of racketeering in connection with his Wedtech dealings.

McKay found that Meese did not personally benefit from the deal and therefore did not violate conflict-of-interest laws.

The independent counsel also investigated Meese's failure to divest himself of $14,000 worth of stock in regional Bell System operating companies when he was formulating Justice Department policy about the breakup of American Telephone & Telegraph.

McKay's investigation found probable violations of conflict-of-interest and tax laws but declined to prosecute, saying there was no evidence Meese was motivated by personal gain or self-interest.