The Justice Department yesterday filed a civil racketeering suit against the president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union and the union's Atlantic City, N.J., local, charging a 20-year pattern of embezzlement, extortion, bribery and murder in connection with organized crime.

The government asked that Local 54 be placed under immediate trusteeship and its top officers removed from office. The local represents 22,000 hotel and restaurant employees in Atlantic City casinos as well as other South Jersey restaurants and bars.

The suit also asked the court to bar Edward T. Hanley, president of the 278,000-member international union, from having any dealings with the local. The government charged that Hanley was an associate of "senior members of the Chicago-based family of La Cosa Nostra and was involved with New York and Philadelphia LCN members."

Efforts to reach Hanley at his Washington office yesterday were unsuccessful. He is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, the labor federation's ruling body, and a spokesman said the AFL-CIO would have no comment.

The Justice Department action is patterned after its massive June 1988 civil racketeering suit against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The government has reached a settlement with the Teamsters in which top union leaders were removed and the union agreed to hold direct, secret ballot elections for national officers for the first time in its history.

Attorney General Dick Thornburgh told a news conference in Newark, N.J., where the suit was filed in federal court, that the Restaurant Workers' local has been controlled by the Bruno/Scarfo family of La Cosa Nostra for at least 20 years. "Through their brutal and often deadly acts of violence and intimidation," Thornburgh said, the New Jersey crime families "destroyed the integrity of the union and its leadership."

In its complaint, the government alleged a history of bribes and extortion as crime figures embezzled union funds and took money from benefit plans. The court papers claimed the local has been controlled from the jail cell of Nicodemus "Little Nicky" Scarfo, who is serving a life sentence on a racketeering conviction involving murder and extortion.

Francis Gerace, a former president of Local 54 and now an administrative aide to Hanley, is a co-defendant in the suit, along with the current president, secretary-treasurer and other officers of the local.

Julian W. De La Rosa, Labor Department inspector general, said the suit culminates a 10-year effort by the department's Office of Labor Racketeering to clean up the local. "We intend to remove the organized crime element that holds this union hostage," he said.

U.S. Attorney Michael Certoff said a key figure in the case against the union would be mob informant Phil Leonetti, Scarfo's nephew, who is also expected to be an informant in the government's latest case against reputed New York crime boss John Gotti.