The Justice Department, an agency usually known for being up on the nation's laws, neglected to follow a 21-year-old federal historic preservation statute last year when it auctioned off a landmark Loudoun County estate that it had seized in a drug raid.

The mistake has set off a bizarre form of regulatory roulette among several state and federal agencies. The fracas has attracted the interest of two members of Congress, who are pushing the Justice Department to make amends for its action by imposing tough restrictions to protect the historic site, the Shelburne Glebe estate in the heart of Virginia's hunt country.

In addition, preservation groups lobbying to save the 200-year-old estate, as well as local residents who are pushing to prevent further development in the county, have joined the fray. Participants in the fight said they still have time to try to influence the Justice Department to place various restrictive covenants on the property, since the sale has not yet been completed.

At issue is the department's failure to follow provisions of the Historic Preservation Act, which Congress passed in 1966 to protect the nation's historic landmarks. One section of the act requires the federal government to consult with certain state and federal historic preservation agencies before selling any historic federally owned site -- such as Shelburne Glebe, which is listed on the register of federal and Virginia historic landmarks.

Under the law, the preservation agencies are supposed to be given a chance to recommend whether a historic property should be sold and, if so, what types of covenants should be placed on the property's title.

In last year's auction, federal marshals received a $4.1 million bid for Shelburne Glebe, a 734-acre secluded estate about 10 miles southwest of Leesburg. The two-story brick mansion had been the home of convicted drug kingpin Christopher F. Reckmeyer, who ran a nationwide narcotics distribution ring for 10 years.

Reckmeyer, a 36-year-old graduate of Langley High School in McLean, pleaded guilty in 1985 to running the operation, which brought nearly 300 tons of marijuana and hashish into the United States from Mexico, Colombia and Lebanon. He was sentenced to a 17-year term without the possibility of parole and is now in a federal prison in California.

Jubran A. Badra, the successful bidder, offered $4.1 million for property. Badra, who heads a Washington business brokerage and commercial real estate office, has not publicly said what he intends to do with the property, or even whether he purchased the estate for himself or an investor.

The Justice Department, through its U.S. Marshals Service, ordered the seized property to be sold at auction, a move that caught the attention of various real estate developers and speculators. Some potential buyers also saw Shelburne Glebe as a possible paradise for treasure hunters, given the millions of dollars worth of gems and cash that federal agents found after searching the house and dredging a 30-acre lake on the estate.

In a tour this week of the property, evidence of the hunt for drugs and valuables was still visible, particularly in the home's attic, where poorly patched walls gave a clue to where investigators thought they would find Reckmeyer's cache.

After the auction last year of the 18th century house and surrounding property, federal officials boasted that they had obtained more than $1 million above what they thought the property was worth.

"Uncle Sam is very happy," said U.S. Marshal Roger Ray afterward. "We made out pretty well, didn't we?"

But it wasn't until this summer that Justice officials found out that they had not followed federal law, despite auction brochures that proclaimed that the site was an historic landmark.

So, despite the supposed checks and balances to protect federally owned historic properties, people are still asking why the preservation law was not followed.

"I don't know that I have an answer to that question," said Kent Robinson of the U.S. Attorney's office.

"I'm not sure," said Brad Cates, director of the Justice Department's forfeiture division.

Kenneth Fulp, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service, declined to acknowledge that a mistake was made. "You couldn't say someone goofed because the process is being implemented," said Fulp, whose agency ran the auction.

Preservationists, as well as some state and federal officials, said they are worried that selling the estate without some sort of restrictive covenant could lead to the eventual destruction of Shelburne Glebe. They also said development of the site could harm the Goose Creek Historic District, a rural 10,000-acre portion of central Loudoun that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"There can be little doubt as to the historic significance of the Shelburne Glebe," said a recent letter sent to the Justice Department from Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). The Virginia members of Congress "requested" that the department not settle the transaction until it complies with the historic preservation law.

"We feel very strongly that the property should be protected," said Calder Loth, senior architectural historian for the Virginia Division of Historic Landmarks in Richmond, the state agency with which Justice should have consulted before auctioning off the estate.

Loth said he also did not know why Justice failed to follow the preservation law's provisions. "Normally, we do not go around reminding federal agencies what they are supposed to do. It's a federal agency's responsibility to be aware of the regulations. It just wasn't caught here," he said.

Loth's agency, as well as the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, is now going over the estate to see what covenants, if any, should be mandated on the deed before the deal is actually settled. Loth said one possible covenant could be to place a restrictive easement on the property that would bar any housing development and ensure that the historic house is not leveled by the new owner.

"Or it could be less than that," Loth said. "It's up to Justice to determine what happens next. In most cases, the federal agency does want to conform to our recommendations. In this case, I don't know."

Fulp of the federal marshals office said his agency "intends to work" with the Virginia landmarks department "and comply with the Historic Preservation Act as it affects this property."

None of the parties involved could say when the issue would be resolved. One other potential problem was settled last summer when the federal appeals court in Richmond rejected a bid by Reckmeyer's wife, Nancy, to claim partial ownership of the property. She said she had no knowledge of her husband's drug activities.

In the end, the Justice Department has the authority to determine if any covenants will be written into the deal. Federal officials acknowledged, however, that such restrictive covenants could pose legal headaches because Badra did not not know about any possible restrictive uses on the property.

"I'd rather not get into that. It would be inappropriate," Fulp said about the covenants or the potential legal problems.

In a county where fervent antigrowth sentiment has spawned such bumper stickers as "Don't Fairfax Loudoun," nearby residents said they are upset that the vast farmland on the estate could be transformed into a housing development.

"Residents are very disturbed about widespread development of this site," said William Brown, a nearby landowner leading the fight to protect the property.

Brown and others said their concerns about the future of the site have not been eased any by the strict silence of Badra.

"I will not comment on anything," Badra said this week. As a result, Shelburne Glebe's neighbors have been left to speculate on what Badra might do with the property.

Shelburne Glebe is believed to be the sole remaining glebe house in Northern Virginia, and once served as the home to George Washington's chaplain. By law, all glebe houses, which were colonial parish homes purchased with tax dollars, were sold to raise money for the poor after Thomas Jefferson's Statute of Religious Freedom became law in 1787.

But tenacious Anglican church members -- in what became the first major headache the federal government would have in dealing with Shelburne Glebe -- defiantly held onto the property for 38 years after passage of Jefferson's law.

"If we knew {Badra} wanted to farm it ... I think we could work fairly easily with him," said Eleni Silverman, historic preservation specialist with the federal preservation agency. "But if he wants to develop it, that's where there is some concern. We just don't know what he's planning."