As the lid on a coffin of a case against former D.C. deputy mayor Ivanhoe Donaldson was about to be closed Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova stared at the defendant's table and confidently fingered his cheek. Donaldson nervously stroked his neck. DiGenova's two assistants, Daniel J. Bernstein and David F. Geneson, coolly adjusted their neckties and turned to face the bench.

"Case 85-433: The United States of America versus Ivanhoe Donaldson," the court clerk announced. "Judge Gerhard A. Gesell presiding."

Donaldson, 44, hollow-eyed and pale, had entered the courtroom escorted by two lawyers. But it was too late for the defense.

"Your honor, there is a plea of guilty in this case," lawyer Robert Watkins said from the defendant's table.

Gesell leaned forward and summoned Donaldson, who now faced not only the judge but also a maximum sentence of 23 years in prison and $360,000 in fines.

Before he would accept the plea, however, Gesell said he wanted to be sure that Donaldson understood the charges against him -- charges that had come not from a grand jury indictment, but solely from information presented "on the signature of the U.S attorney."

Even in the absence of a trial, Gesell explained, the state must present an outline of the evidence against Donaldson, who would then have the opportunity to refute it.

DiGenova leaned back in his chair, folded his arms and pursed his lips. Donaldson rested his head on a fist, a forefinger pressed against his jugular vein.

DiGenova whispered final instructions to Bernstein and Geneson and, like a tag team of wrestlers, the two assistants took turns giving blow-by-blow accounts of a pattern of theft, fraud and obstruction of justice that involved the funneling of nearly $200,000, largely from District taxpayers' monies, into Donaldson's personal bank account.

From August 1981 until July 1984, the prosecutors alleged, Donaldson "knowingly and willfully defrauded the government of the District of Columbia and the Citizens to Re-elect Marion Barry Committee of their lawful right to conduct their business and affairs free from deceit, fraud, misrepresentation and theft . . . . "

In a nutshell, Donaldson stole money from the D.C. Department of Employment Services that was supposed to help poor people find jobs and pay emergency unemployment compensation. And he stole money from the committee to reelect Mayor Barry that was supposed to be have been spent surveying poor people about their needs.

"Your honor," Bernstein emphasized, "If this case was to go to trial, the state would call Judy Richardson to testify that Ivanhoe Donaldson, while acting director of the Department of Employment Services, had a check issued in her name in the amount of $1,800 and then, having forged Judy Richardson's endorsement on it, directed Sandra B. Hill to cash it for him.

"Your honor, the state would then call Sandra B. Hill to testify . . . . "

As the hour-long litany continued, Donaldson's face sunk into his palm, his fingers stuck in his ears, his facial skin, loose from an apparent loss of appetite, bunched up in wrinkles around his hair line.

Defense lawyer Watkins massaged his own temples with the knuckle of a fist while the second attorney, Richard Hoffman, nervously picked his teeth with a ballpoint pen cap.

DiGenova, who was seated across from them, concealed a yawn by raising a fist then stared nonchalantly at his silver cuff links.

Approaching the bench for the final guilty plea, Donaldson couldn't quite figure out what to do with his hands. First he rubbed them together as if drying sweaty palms, then shoved them into his coat pockets.

In the end, he held them behind his back and simply hung his head.