WASHINGTON -- The "Conscience Fund" began in 1811, when James Madison's administration received $5 from someone who said he had defrauded the government.
Guilt money has been dribbling into the U.S. Treasury ever since -- more than $6.5 million in all.
Most donors, including the first, have been anonymous. But they often include letters that admit to some offense -- however small -- against the government.
"Please accept this money for two postal stamps I re-used," wrote one person.
Another individual felt obliged to pay a penalty: "About eight years ago I took from a railroad station an item worth about $25 and this has been on my conscience since, so I'm enclosing $50 to clear my conscience."
Other troubled correspondents have cited unpaid U.S. Customs duties, military goods kept after discharge from service, even money found on the street.
"This afternoon I found the enclosed coin on the pavement," said a letter accompanying a dime.
Treasury employees say they're baffled by some explanations, like this one: "Enclosed is $210 for some letters I read many years ago and some food I didn't pay for."
But the biggest sum ever received -- $155,502, in 1990 -- arrived without any hint of the dark deed that lay behind it.
To preserve anonymity, some people send cash or arrange the transaction through an attorney. The Treasury Department doesn't ask questions. When there's a return address, it responds with a thank-you note, says Andy Montgomery, spokesman for the agency's financial management service bureau.
Donors' letters sometimes are addressed, "Conscience Fund, U.S. Government, Washington, D.C.," and in other cases are sent directly to the Treasury Department.
Montgomery doesn't know when the name Conscience Fund was coined, but it has stuck and today that is how the account is identified.
The first year, 1811, the government counted $250 in contributions. Last year the Treasury Department received $238,115 from 150 individuals. Since 1982 the fund has averaged in excess of $200,000 a year, topped by a record $381,000 in 1986.
This year figures to be another good one, although the receipts won't be tallied until after Dec. 31.
The money doesn't stay in government coffers very long.
"It's deposited into Treasury's general account as miscellaneous receipts," Montgomery says, "and then it's used for general expenses."