For months, everyone knew it was coming. At parties, people occasionally whispered about it. During the summer doldrums, it was a topic of sporadic conversation.

In many ways it was anticlimactic when, on Tuesday, Ivanhoe Donaldson, former D.C. deputy mayor for economic development, pleaded guilty to stealing city funds.

But many people were startled, even dazed, by the extent of Donaldson's crimes. Because, by his own confession, he calculatedly stole about $190,000 from the city government between 1981 and 1983 -- pilfering campaign funds, orchestrating a cover-up and using innocent subordinates, relatives and friends in his schemes -- people have been forced to ask: What could have driven him to so blatantly violate the public trust and abuse the authority of his powerful office?

U.S. District Court Judge Gerhard A. Gesell spoke for a lot of us when he told Donaldson at Tuesday's hearing that he was anxious to learn "how you got into this mess."

Several other people are asking that question, among others: Was Donaldson seduced by his own vast power? Was it his life style? Did he really spend twice as much as he made -- and if he did, how did he spend it?

Prior to his fall, Donaldson had been a confidant to D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, from their early civil rights days until Donaldson left the government in October 1983. Donaldson had a reputation for brilliance and feistiness -- not dishonesty.

But it turns out that his flaws were as great as his talents.

After orchestrating Barry's 1978 mayoral election, Donaldson headed the Department of Employment Services, setting the once unmanageable agency on a steady course. While doing this, he also began stealing from a special administrative fund that had been set up to grant emergency unemployment funds to those in need.

In 1982, he managed Barry's reelection campaign and helped the mayor gain a second term. But he also promptly stole $1,800 from the Barry campaign treasury.

Later that year, Donaldson headed Barry's transition committee, revamping the old city government into a structure that many considered more efficient than the old system. But at the same time, he continued stealing from the Employment Services administrative fund, even extracting double payment for contracts.

He subsequently became deputy mayor for economic development and began orchestrating efforts to increase economic development downtown and in some neighborhoods. But he continued stealing from the Employment Services account, and went so far as to pressure subordinates into assisting him in forging checks and demanding kickbacks from contractors.

In the fall of 1983, Donaldson joined the private sector, becoming a vice president for E.F. Hutton & Co. But while working with E.F. Hutton, he still continued to use his unquestioned authority and influence, based on his friendship with the mayor, to steal an additional $65,000 in city funds.

The ruthless extent to which Donaldson was prepared to go to steal city funds is particularly evident in one of the schemes he engineered during this period. In early 1984, Donaldson asked Cornbread Givens, president of the Poor Peoples Development Foundation Inc. to get a $65,000 "light" contract from Employment Services. Donaldson told Givens that Barry wanted this sham contract issued so that Donaldson could pay a number of Jesse Jackson campaign workers who were owed money for their work on Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign. Members of Jackson's campaign staff never saw any of the money. Givens received the contract and Donaldson received $52,500, using the money to pay personal debts.

To his credit, the mayor has since instituted a much-needed system of checks and balances for the Employment Services administrative fund that Donaldson freely raided.

For these crimes and possibly others, Donaldson will be sentenced on January 27. While there appears to be no simple motive to explain his actions -- indeed, his self-propelled fall from grace -- there does seem to be an equation that encompasses the tragedy of this brilliantly flawed man. It is age-old: Flawed talent plus unlimited power often equals corruption.