What Ivanhoe Donaldson did to this city, its government and its people was more than a calculated crime. It was a violation of public trust, an abuse of high authority in a young government that can ill afford such assaults. Here was one of the most powerful people in the District of Columbia government, systematically ripping off monies set aside for residents in need, manipulating subordinates, stealing campaign funds, committing tax fraud and attempting a cover-up. That is an ugly end to what had been a brilliant career in the civil rights movement, in national and local politics and even in the initial management of the city government under Mayor Marion Barry, a longtime friend whose good faith he betrayed.

How did Mr. Donaldson get away with his scheme? In fact, he didn't -- it was the city government's own investigation, carried out at the direction of the mayor by an independent inspector general's office originally established by the mayor, that uncovered criminal implications and led to yesterday's guilty pleas. Joyce Blalock, inspector general at the time, is credited with finding evidence not only of embezzlement but of lying and attempts at cover-up. "The system found this," she noted yesterday. "The mayor asked us to review this when he saw something potentially awry. . . . I'm extremely proud of the mayor. He left referral (to the U.S. Attorney's office for prosecution) up to my judgment, and I did it with his full approval and understanding. He directed that it be done. It had to be an extremely painful thing for him to do."

Joseph E. DiGenova, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, who led the criminal investigation, also cited the contributions of the inspector general to the tracking job done by his office.

How could so much money be embezzled in the first place? It began with a special fund -- created not by the local government, but the federal government -- consisting of interest and penalties from District employers who had not made timely payments to their employees' unemployment funds. The fund was supposed to help distribute unemployment funds directly to those in need, such as residents who had not received unemployment checks on time. It was an unaudited discretionary fund and Mr. Donaldson seized on this; through a series of orders to various subordinates who took him on faith, he was able to get checks issued to him and to various laundering operations.

Could this happen again? City hall's top financial managers said yesterday that there are no more such "extraneous" accounts outside their official Financial Management System, patterned after the federal system. Signatures and supporting documentation must be presented before a series of certifications can bin; the certifications must be made along with reviews by two top financial offices before any check can be cut. "Our system is as good now as any in the country," said Alphonse Hill, deputy manager for financial management. "And we're probably more audited than any local government," by federal as well as internal agencies.

"In any government," said Inspector General Blalock, "for that matter in the private sector as well, where there are a lot of people and a lot of money, you're going to find people who can't resist temptation." It is unspeakably infuriating that Ivanhoe Donaldson should have been one of these, should have betrayed not only the city's trust, but also his own large talents and achievement. Let it be noted that it is not self-government that has failed, as the usual critics are already muttering. Self-government found out the scheme, stopped it and brought Mr. Donaldson to book. The failure is Mr. Donaldsons's and a mighty one it is.