It was just the thing to fire up an 11-year-old's curiosity: a gold-tinted "Bonus Bag" of 600 stamps from all over the world, on sale for a mere $3 in the lobby of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. So Susan Meehan of Northwest bought the stamps for her daughter, Alisoun.
That was on June 2. By June 6, the District government had buried in convincing fashion the notion that it never does anything quickly, efficiently or finally.
Harris and Co. of Boston, which packaged Alisoun Meehan's stamps, was ordered to refrain from selling them in the city anymore, and to refund Susan Meehan's $3.
The reason: the 600 stamps the Meehans thought they had bought turned out to be 487.
"I first got suspicious as soon as I got home," Susan Meehan said. "I looked at the bag and said, 'I'll be damned if that's 600 stamps.' As soon as I finished counting, I called the city right away."
Earl Maxwell has one of those titles it takes two deep breaths to finish saying: chief of the Weights, Measures and Markets Division of the Office of Licenses and Permits in the city's Department of Licenses, Investigations and Inspections.
But a cobweb-covered bureaucrat he isn't.
"We went over to the Smithsonian right away and checked all the stamp packages, maybe two dozen of them or so," Maxwell said. "Every one of them was short from 55 to 77 stamps. The reason was apparently that the bags were sold on the basis of weight, and a lot of the stamps were still mounted on pieces of paper."
Even though it was not clear that the city had jurisdiction over a concession stand in a federal museum, Maxwell ordered the "Bonus Bags" taken off the shelves. Harris officials in Boston said they had discontinued "Bonus Bags" last winter anyway, so they had no objection to their removal from the Smithsonian. They also agreed to refund the Meehans' money, "and that was that," Maxwell said.
"We didn't contest it," said Harris president Wesley P. Mann Jr. "I'm chagrined that Harris put out a product with a short count. It won't happen again."
Let's hope that the one thing that does happen again is the speed with which Maxwell jumped on the Case of the Smithsonian Stamps.
You can howl all you want about how the prioritiesof city agencies are screwy -- that inspectors should be scurrying to investigate housing code violations rather than Australian commemoratives. But I'll take whatever investigative excellence I can get -- and a little girl and her mother can testify that excellence was the word for Earl Maxwell's performance.
UPDATE: Not long ago, I reported on a con man who can weep on command and who has been trying, with occasional success, to separate some Bethesda restaurateurs from their money.
Well, it seems our man has branched out. Since his scam was described here, 11 more restaurant owners have called or written to say that the same guy has approached them. The 11 do business in an area from Beltsville to Vienna. Nine of them resisted the con man's pitch, but two didn't -- to the total tune of $105.
The man in question is in his 20s, about 5 feet 8, thin, well dressed and well spoken. His usual story is that his father has just died and he needs money for a plane ticket so he can attend the funeral.
He seems to prefer hitting restaurants at their slower times, and he never asks for the same amount of money twice. When he hit O'Carroll's Seafood Restaurant in Arlington last month, for example, he bamboozled Al the bartender out of $35, according to Gracie Arndt, the coproprietor. But when Herb Stern of Fran O'Brien's was "touched" four years ago, "he got me for $70. Serious money," Stern said.
Charles Crouch, an Arlington County police detective, sighed wearily when I called him to discuss The Crying Con Man.
"I've been looking for this guy for ages," Crouch said. "I've had dozens of complaints. This guy is a real artist, let me tell you."
But he's an artist that Crouch would like to put out of business. If you have any information about his whereabouts, Crouch asks you to call him at 558-2383.