Pro bono publico - for the public good - is a noble phrase long associated with doctors and lawyers. But the concept was virtually unknown in the lexicon of accountants until Morton Levy came along.

The idea of accountants volunteering their talents to those unable to afford the services of a certified public accountant seemed, to Levy, an eminently sensible and necessary one. "I was approaching my 40th birthday," he says, "And decided I wasn't getting the kind of satisfaction I wanted from the accounting profession."

So six years ago Levy retired from accounting and formed Accountants for the Public Interest in San Francisco with a grant of $26,000 and a belief that the time had come for accountants to come out of the closet and get directly involved with the public and public issues.

Now there are API offices in 15 cities across the country and a cadre of 700 to 800 volunteer accountants donating their time and expertise to help nonprofit, issue-oriented groups better cope with the financial problems they face.

The purpose of such an organization was two-fold, according to Levy, "to mobilize volunteer accountants willing to contribute time to help various social and economic issues" and "to make some impact on those issues."

This is pretty radical stuff for a profession which has traditionally catered to business and wealthy clients. Initially, there was much skepticism from established accountants and industry. "There was a lot of concern and reluctance in anticipating we were not going to be objective," Levy says.

But Levy and API weathered the criticism and went to work.

One of their first clients was the San Francisco Ecology Center which opposed a planned expansion of San Francisco International Airport. API agreed to examine the financial feasibility of such a proposal and to come up with some alternatives to expansion. Based on the results of API's report, the Ecology Center filed suit and succeeded in temperarily stopping work on enlarging the airport.

API operated locally in the San Francisco area until 1975 when the National Association of Accountant for the Public Interest was incorporated and API groups began to appear in cities like New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington. Even Helena, Mont., has its own API office.

Levy acts as a "travelling salesman" for API, barnstorming across the country, setting up new offices, fund raising and preaching his philosophy. With funding from the likes of the Ford Foundation and the Public Welfare Foundation, Levy hopes to add three new regional API offices a year, each with an annual budget of $30,000 to $40,000.

The Washington office of API has been in existence for about eighteen months. It has a paid staff of five and two student interns (none of them accountants). The staff, headed by Executive Director Tom Morris, organizes and coordinates, while a pool of 40 to 50 volunteers performs actual case work. The volunteers come from all areas of the accounting field - from industry, government and education. Both young and retired accountants are counted among the volunteers.

"We used to look for volunteers in general," Morris says. "Now we're trying to be more case specified, trying to find people who are interested in the specific issue."

No two issues in API's case file are quite the same. Each poses new problems and challenges - ones a CPA would probably not encounter.

Last year, when the COuncil for Public Interest Law in Washington wanted to know if private law firm complaints about the level of pro bono fees were valid, if went to API. So API created, on paper, a model Washington law firm. With information supplied by the Justice Department, it calculated average expenses versus average income.

When the Subcommittee on Income Maintenance of the Task Force on the Reorganization of the D.C. Department of Human Resources requested assistance on possible ways to improve efficiency and service at DHR, API had to refuse their first request to "verify budget summaries" because it implied an audit. "Such a procedure could not be done by our volunteer group within a two-month time span," API said.

Other local issues API currently is working on include rent increase procedures and the financial aspects of living on a fixed income. A local citizens group has enlised API to determine whether their county government's handling of financial affiars are in accordance with state and federal guidelines.

Recently, API received two identical requests from different neighborhood groups involving landlords applying for hardship rent increases. Eventually API plans to take this issue one step further, by bringing tenants and landlords together in workshops on how to keep rents down.

The Institute of City Self Sufficiency came to API for help in determining how the D.C. budget could be made more manageable and more understandable to the average person.

API now is broadening the scope of its service to the Washington community. "We maintain a referral service here as well," Morris says. "We try to encourage and publicize what other groups are doing in accounting and financial areas."

Last year, it published a directory of free or inexpensive accounting services for small businesses, non-profit and community groups in the District with help from student and faculty volunteers from the American University. That directory now is being expanded and updated.

A consumer guide to rent increase procedures also is in the works, with the emphasis on how to keep costs and, consequently, rents down. Another directory is being compiled of organizations which offer low-cost tax assistance, aimed at the poor and elderly.