John Hoyt, president of the Humane Society of the United States, once told the society's animal lovers how they could become more humane: "We begin, I suggest, by living more simply, more sparingly."

Hoyt lives in a $310,000 house bought by the Humane Society, using money that donors gave for prevention of cruelty to animals.

The California Attorney General's Office is now taking a look at that perk and other curious financial decisions made by the national animal protection agency based in Washington.

After reviewing documents about the way the Humane Society is managed, the California attorney general wrote a terse letter to the society stating that, in his opinion, the charity had "engaged in a course of conduct" that "violated" the charity trust laws of California. Much of the money for the national society is raised in California.

The Humane Society sent a letter of response claiming its problems had been ironed out, but the deputy attorney general told our associate Jim Lynch that his opinion hasn't changed.

In 1988 we reported on an internal investigation into Humane Society finances. The first of two internal reports said a series of "self-dealing" transactions by the charity had benefited Hoyt and the society's vice president and treasurer, Paul Irwin. The big-ticket item was Hoyt's house, which the society bought and lets him live in rent-free.

After our first reports in 1988, instead of cleaning house, the Humane Society hired a consultant for advice on how to handle "negative press." The consultant suggested that the society should have responded to our initial questions two years ago. Apparently that advice fell on deaf ears. The Humane Society's attorney did not respond to our questions this time around either.

The latest rub at the Humane Society is the hiring of David Wills as vice president for investigations. In 1987, when Wills was running the Michigan Humane Society, Hoyt tried to convince his board that the national society and the Michigan society should be merged. The national society is not tied to the many state and local humane societies, and the merger with one state agency didn't make sense to the board, so it was vetoed. Two years ago Wills left the Michigan agency in a financial condition that is still under investigation. Hoyt then hired him, and one former board member told us Hoyt is grooming Wills to be his successor.

The National Charities Information Bureau in New York, a watchdog group, does not give the Humane Society of the United States a thumbs up. "We still have some questions about their financial reporting," said bureau spokesman Dan Langan.

Hoyt's house is not the only thing that smells bad in the books. The California attorney general is also looking into money the society paid to Irwin, the treasurer, to help fix up oceanfront property in Maine. Then there is the little matter of trips Hoyt's wife made on the charity's tab and other perks for Hoyt and Irwin.

If California decides the Humane Society stepped out of line, it could seize the money collected in California and spend it directly on animal care.