AT FIRST, YOU SEE, there was nothing to report. There was this home the mayor had bought and there was this mortgage he secured and it was, as it should be, the sort of deal you and I could get. It was also not the truth.

Then the story started to unravel. The Washington Post reported the words of the mayor and his banker, but the Washington Star said something different. It said that the mortgage the mayor got was something of a bargain. It said he got an 11.5 percent mortgage instead of the standard 12. This was because the mayor's wife, Effi, had recently been appointed to the board of the bank that had made the mortgage loan to the mayor.

This then became the story. The new story had it that the mayor and his wife had received the same deal as anyone else who worked for the bank. The other members of the board got their mortgage at 11.5 and so did Effi Barry and her husband. Mind you, no one talked figures. You were supposed to believe that the actual amount was 11.5. It was not, of course, but few knew it then.

The president of the bank knew it, but he said nothing. When I wrote about it, no one called in and asked for a correction. I said the 1/2 percent difference amounted to $37 a month. I was wrong -- way wrong, but no one in the interest of accuracy moved to stop me. I even talked to the public relations person for the bank. She called me. We talked of the 11.5 percent figure and she asked me if I thought the mayor could be bribed for so little money. It is a question like, when did you stop hitting your wife. There is no way to answer.

Effi Barry knew better. She was on the board of the savings and loan, after all. She at first said she knew of the discount and she said she couldn't remember how much it was, and then she said it was personal -- none of your business. Now she knows what it is. Her husband has told her and the world. It is 8 3/4 percent, which is a whole lot of money away from 12 percent or even 11.5 percent. It is not the sort of loan anyone could get. It is not even the sort of loan a favored customer could get. It is the sort of loan you can get if you went into a time capsule and went back five years.

No matter. The mayor was into the bank for quite a lot of money.It is more money than anyone thought and it may be more money than he says. When he was asked at the press conference who had paid the settlement fees, he turned on his heels and walked out. The mayor may in fact have paid them, but considering his lack of candor recently, it is not an unfair question.

There is something at stake here that has nothing to do with money. It has to do, instead, with a perception -- with a sense of a place. Washington is a clean place. It is clean, in part, because it is perceived as clean. This is not a town where you have to bank at a certain bank to get construction permits and this is not a town with a favored insurance agency and this is not a town where construction projects come to a stop because some inspector has not been paid off. Some of this changes the minute people perceive a cozy relationship between the mayor, with all his power, and a certain bank. And there is no cozier relationship than accepting a whopping discount on a mortgage.

So it is a good thing that the mayor has come out in the open with details of his mortgage. It would be even better if he would divulge all the details and it would be the best of all if he would learn that it just looks awful for a mayor to take a favor from any firm that does business with the city and then cover it up -- pretend to tell the truth when the truth is otherwise.

The temptation is to congratulate him. The temptation is to say -- and it is true -- that it takes a big man to come clean. But he has done so grudgingly, done so without saying that he has learned that his business is the people's business. He stepped deep into a conflict of interest, covered it up, refused to reveal the details, allowed people to believe things that were not true, and then came clean only in response to pressure. He lost more than money on this caper.

He's lost some trust.