For weeks, the headlines have been full of investigations of top District government officials. Much of the investigating has been done by three men in the government, and their findings have become very public, indeed.

But who are the investigators themselves? The District Weekly has prepared profiles of the three who have been involved in the investigations of Mayor Washington and Human Resources director Josepy P. Yeldell. The following is the first in a series.

Mathew S. Watson's manner belies his mandate. A gentle, thoughful man, he has the power to be a terror within the District government. Instead, he has chosen just to be gentle and thoughful.

"Our function," Watson said, "is to improve the city government. It's not to develop problems," There are, he implies, more than enough already.

Watson is the city's first, and so far its only, independent auditor. His job, paying $36,000 a year, was established by Congress in the Home Rule Act of 1973.

All that the act assigns Watson to do is "a thorough audit" each year "of the accounts and operations of the government of the District." Copies are to go to the City Council, the Mayor and Congress.

In reality, Watson and his staff of 10 are part ombudsmen, part management analysts, part accountants and part policy-shakers. Even though much of what they have investigated in their two years in office has been politically charged or potentially illegal, Watson insists that his office is neither cop nor court. Nor, he says, would it be effective if it were.

"We're not adversaries," Watson said. "We don't all of a sudden descend on an office and say, 'OK, seal up all the files.' . . . We want to stay as a thorn in people's sides, but our real job is to insure that the people who make policy have sufficient data in front of them to make a decision."

The most public effort Watson has yet undertaken along those lines was his December assignment to analyze nepotism and cronyism in D.C. government personnel practices. The issue arose when newspaper reports revealed questionable practices during Joseph P. Yeldell's tenure as chief of the Department of Human Resources. Watson's report was issued Monday.

In that instance, as in most of his work, Watson stepped on on his own.However, he can be called upon by the City Council, one of it's members or committees, or by Mayor Washington.

His thrust, Watson said, is "not to do it the way a CPA would, but to ferret out what areas need improvement, as opposed to ferreting out certain numbers."

That checks with the nature of Watson's staff. Only three of its seven professsionals have accounting backgrounds, Two are lawyers, Watson included, and two have masters' degrees in public administration.

Such a mix was intentional, Watson said, and was patterned after the staffing of the General Accounting Office, where Watson used to be a senior attorney in the general counsel's office.

"This way, we may ask some more basic questions," Watson said. "We want people who say the emperor is wearing no clothes."

TWatson's office was not involved with an independent, 75-man, $20,000 audit, released last June, that found the city's finances in a complete mess. Watson did not comment on the report, which was compiled by Arthur Anderson & Co., except to say that he has used it in later reports of his own.

Although Watson was appointed by City Council chairman Sterling Tucker and confirmed by the Council, as the law required, he said he is not beholden to Tucker or the Council at the expense of the executive branch of the D.C. government,

Both the mayor and Council have four-years terms; Watson's is six. As a result, te independent auditor "is likely to outlive the guy who appoints him," Watson said.

"We are somewhat closer to the legislative branch," Watson acknowledged. "But we try to provide an overview of common problems throughout. We want to look at the relationship between the legislative and the executive . . . We're a part of the city government, yes, but we're independent."

There is nothing statutory, however, to prevent Watson from being or becoming a political weapon for one branch to use against the other. "We haven't had particular trouble with that," Watson said, although he acknowledged that was because "I have refused to be directed to find something."

He might have some trouble if he were asked, for Watson has fewer tools than a prosecutor.

By statute, he has access to "all books, account, records, reports, findings and all other papers, things or property" in the D.C. government. But he does not have subpoena power, and thus depends on cooperation, often from the very D.C. government employees he is investigating.

Watson thinks that is beneficial, however. "Having access is a more useful tool than a subpoena," he argues, "because with a subpoena, you have to specify what you're looking for." As for "stonewalling," Watson said he has not encountered it, although he agreed that it is always possible and "would slow us down."

Watson is not a new boy on the Washington block. The son of a physicist, he grew up in Chevy Chase and graduated in 1958 from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He holds bachelor's and master' degrees in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and a law degree from New York University. He turned 36 last week.

Watson works out of a dingy suite of offices at 1329 E ST. NW. His own is littered with papers, reports and books. The only photo is of his wife, Marjorie. The couple has two sons, 9 and 6.

Watson's job may be unique to the District government, but not to the United States. All fifty states have an independent auditor, as do Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa, although their roles and powers vary.

In addition, watson is one of only a handful who is not elected. That, however, is all right with him.

"I see a danger that it could be used as a springboard to some office," he said. He adds that he is not interested.

His chief regret, Watson said, is that much of the work he regards as most important gets the least attention. He called press coverage of the Yeldell flap "overdone." Far more pressing, he said, are the questions of "controls on the city's spending" and "the potential for consolidating" city functions.

"Do you know that to open a business in this city, a guy has to go to five separate agencies?" Watson asked. "It is necessary to put this burden on a poor little business? That's the kind of thing we look at."

The main thing that may foil his efforts, Watson said, is bureaucratic sludge, "the attitude that says that if you don't rock the boat, you have no problems, you get ahead."

Watson recognizes, of course, that his is the only D.C. government office that has the time to study problems without being overwhelmed by day-to-day responsibility. "You do have to get the license plates out, after all," he admitted.

But in general, District government employees "get little recognition for really trying to do a better job," Watson said, "It isn't up to us to change that, but we can show that it needs doing."