When D.C. government financial analyst Alvin Frost tried to warn the city that a $100 million investment in a "thinly capitalized" New Jersey investment firm was at risk, almost nobody listened.
When Frost later charged that the city's financial management office was poorly run, he was ignored, and when he resigned last week as the city prepared to fire him for changing a computer code, only local folk showed any interest at all.
But when Frost refused to reveal the new code and, instead, announced at a news conference at the Old Ebbitt Grill that he had started a "guess-the-password contest," with prizes for the first 10 persons who guessed the code, people from around the country began taking notice.
From Tulsa, Earl Goodman, a marketing manager, called The Washington Post newsroom to report that his daughter, Elizabeth, 10, and son, Earl III, 8, cracked the code five minutes after reading about the contest yesterday morning in a wire service account carried by the Tulsa World.
"Our first reaction was here was a guy who probably had a chip on his shoulder or some kind of bone to pick and decided to hide some information," Goodman recalled in a telephone interview. "When our kids saw it they became very excited and now they want their prize."
From Sunnyside, Wash., computer buff Robert Newton called to pass on his password based on clues reported in the Yakima Herald Republican, adding, "From what I've read, I think he Frost was probably transgressed on by his peers. I sympathize with him and think he's doing a great job."
Ironically, what Frost had been unable to do locally has been achieved in an extraordinary way nationally: Out there in the hinterland, people are wondering what's going on inside D.C. government.
From Oklahoma City, civil service retiree Ralph Rickie admitted, "Once I cracked the code, I thought to myself, 'I don't know what's going on, but this is a heck of a way to expose mismanagement in government.' "
Frost had come up with the idea for his game in the wake of recent statements by Deputy Mayor Alphonse G. Hill, who is under investigation by a federal grand jury in connection with the awarding of city accounting subcontracts, that Frost was insubordinate, a "nerd and an imbecile."
Frost admitted that he had changed the computer code but said he did so to prevent documents from being destroyed or altered, which he said has happened before.
Frost, 38, is no dummy. The D.C. native graduated from the Harvard Business School and, as the city's senior cash management analyst, he was responsible on a day-to-day basis for making short-term investments of the city's cash. When the City Council summoned city officials last year to explain why they had invested in the now-bankrupt New Jersey firm, whistleblower Frost seemed much cooler and more precise in his statements than some of his superiors, who hemmed and hawed in trying to justify their actions.
But if Hill now wanted to call him an "imbecile," that was fine with Frost. He told his bosses that he just couldn't remember what the new computer password was, although it had something to do with the Declaration of Independence.
While city officials spent a day or so cracking the code, Frost began dropping clues here and there and dreamed up a contest that would award the first 10 people who figured out the code with a lunch and tour of the nation's capital. He said he planned to sprinkle clues in classified ads in the newspaper. Frost was making a monkey of Mayor Marion Barry's lieutenants, and the story was beginning to spread throughout the country.
From Huntington Beach, Calif., independent businessman Gregory Smalls called to say that he had solved the puzzle in two minutes. "I read that city accountants were concerned because they hadn't been able to figure it out," he said. "When you see how simple it is, you have to wonder about the people in charge of the money."
The clues offered by Frost are that the password reflects what the Declaration of Independence stands for but is not included in the document itself; it has seven characters and two syllables, and that the first syllable appears four times in the document.
From Des Moines, high school student Robb Mandelbaum wanted to know how he could collect his prize, too. "I just read about it," he said. "It took five minutes."
"It's so obvious," he mused.
Nobody knows whether the prize offer was just a joke, but a lot of folk around the country are having fun. And unfortunately it's at the District's expense