Unzipping a newly purchased purse, the woman was startled to find it stuffed with computer printout sheets listing the bank balances of prominent Washington citizens, law firms and other depositors at the District of Columbia National Bank.
The purse was bought at Latt's Country Squire, a clothing store here. According to Anthony Tellesford, who works in the stockroom, stacks of the paper were scattered on a loading dock in an alley behind the store. The loading dock is adjacent to the rear of the bank and its operations center, where computer records are processed.
Tellesford, who thought the paper was trash from a nearby office, said he stacked it in the stockroom and used it to stuff various items for display purposes.
Some of those whose accounts were listed were rather uneasy about having their financial records wind up as filler in other people's purses.
"It doesn't trouble me personally because I've been in public life and filed financial records," said former attorney general Benjamin Civiletti, whose account was among those listed.
"I'm not concered about my own records. I expect to be scrutinized," he said. "But for those people who are not volunteers in public life, it's a serious concern."
Attorney Joseph L. Rauh said the surprise appearance of his bank records was "the damnedest thing I've ever heard."
Economist Robert R. Nathan, chairman of Robert R. Nathan Associates, who stepped down only last month after serving 12 years as one of the bank's board of directors, was furious.
"I really think that's pretty awful," he said. "I'm going to raise hell about it."
Bank President Tom Condit said that it was standard bank policy to shred all sensitive financial data at the end of each day. He was unable to explain yesterday's slip-up.
"Fortunately, most of this information is of no real value," he said.
In recent years the increasing use of computers, especially by financial and credit institutions and other record-keeping companies, has raised questions as to whether disclosure of the information they amass.
David Linowes, former chairman of the Privacy Protecton Study Commission, said the paper-stuffed purse is "an example of the fact that the public is not aware of the problem, and would be more alarmed if it were."