The head of the Washington D.C. Marathon, under fire for a decision to not refund more than $400,000 in entry fees to runners after canceling the race, pleaded guilty to second-degree theft of more than $41,000 six years ago.

A Washington-based corporate law firm, Steptoe and Johnson, filed a complaint on Dec. 12, 1995, alleging that John Stanley, who worked in the firm's accounting department, had "schemed" to buy $41,200 worth of the company's travelers checks and pay for them with fraudulent cashier's checks, according to court records.

Stanley said that he paid the money back to Steptoe and Johnson after pleading guilty on Oct. 11, 1996, and receiving a suspended sentence and a year's probation.

"It was just a dumb thing, a youthful indiscretion," Stanley said yesterday. "It was reprehensible, it was wrong, and at the end of the day I paid full restitution. . . . That was then and this is now. The two [marathon and theft conviction] have nothing to do with each other."

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams's spokesman, Tony Bullock, declined to comment on Stanley's conviction.

After leaving Steptoe and Johnson, Stanley worked in the advertising department of The Washington Post from 1996 to 2000. Post spokesman Eric Grant declined to comment.

Instead of returning registration fees, Stanley's company, H2O entertainment, said it would defer them to next year's race. After announcing the policy, the company was overwhelmed by calls and e-mails from irate runners.

Williams, responding to complaints from hundreds of runners, will soon notify Stanley that if the 6,801 runners do not receive refunds he will direct the city attorney to take legal action, Bullock said. Williams also will ask to review the race's finances, Bullock said. Those demands will be made soon in a letter from the city to H2O, Bullock said.

A week ago, Stanley said he canceled the race because the nation was on the brink of war and because of rising anxiety over possible terrorist attacks. Bullock disputes that assertion.

"I think the truth will come out in the very near future that the reason they canceled was that they were concerned they would lose money staging the race," Bullock said.

Stanley, 34, defends his handling of the marathon, saying the decision to cancel the race was made solely to protect the safety of runners.

"The refund policy is standard protocol," Stanley said. "The Boston Marathon doesn't give refunds. We're not reinventing the wheel."

The Boston Marathon, however, has never been canceled. The Army Ten-Miler, the largest local race canceled in recent memory, gave full refunds in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The other problem with deferring entry fees is that the city has not agreed to allow H20 to stage the race next year.

"These guys at H2O are running around telling everyone that next year is an absolute, and I'm telling you that nothing's been decided," Bullock said.

Stanley said he has commissioned a full review of race finances, which he said is expected to be completed within three weeks. He said the city will be welcome to look at his books then. Stanley said that almost all the registration money was spent on salaries (Stanley said he earns $65,000 as president and has a staff of five full-time employees), postage, advertising, printing materials and other costs.

"People are going to have to wait and see the proof," Stanley said.

According to organizers of other marathons, H2O likely saved about $200,000 in day-of-race expenses. The company did not have to pay the city $93,000 for additional police to provide security. The Metro Transit Authority is returning the $32,000 that H20 paid for additional metro service for the race, according to a Metro spokeswoman. H2O also did not have to award $25,000 in prize money. Lee Corrigan, who operates the Baltimore Marathon, estimates that H2O saved another $50,000 in costs for tents, tables, medical personnel, timing and results officials.

Asked why the city allowed H20 to stage the Washington DC Marathon even though it had never organized a marathon or an athletic event, Bullock said it was the only company that offered to do it.

Stanley originally is from California. He worked for Varsitybooks.com before starting H2O, an events planning company.

Researcher Margaret Smith contributed to this report.

After D.C. Marathon head John Stanley canceled the race and didn't issue refunds, many decided to run anyway on Sunday. In 1995, Stanley pleaded guilty to second-degree theft of more than $41,000.