The headline over the front-page article July 14 concerning the former Health and Human Services official was grossly misleading. It asserted that our client, C. McClain Haddow, pleaded guilty to "kickback charges." Further, reporter Howard Kurtz implied in the text of the article that Mr. Haddow received $55,000 in "kickbacks."

Nothing that happened in court would come close to supporting either the assertion in the headline or the implication in the story itself. Our client pleaded guilty to conflict-of-interest charges, not bribery or kickback charges, because his wife received payments for work that she did for two contractors on matters related to her husband's official duties.

While recognizing the conflict-of-interest violation and the wrongfulness of his conduct by his plea of guilty, Mr. Haddow certainly did not expect such conduct to be escalated by The Post into a charge of receiving "kickbacks." Receipt of "kickbacks" implies willful, intentional, unlawful or wrongful conduct, whereas a conflict- of-interest violation does not require the same element of specific criminal intent. Conflict of interest, while much more serious, is akin to a speeding ticket insofar as the element of intent is concerned. In the latter case, it does not matter whether you intended to speed and willfully violate the law -- you can be found guilty if you were going too fast even if honestly mistaken as to your actual speed, the applicable legal limit or both. Similarly, if you hold a certain position in the government, there are certain jobs your wife cannot get paid for, and it is a conflict of interest if she does so, regardless of whether or not anyone intended to violate the law.

The conflict-of-interest statutes are designed to ensure that when a governmental official acts in his official capacity, he will be uninfluenced by the effect his own actions may have on his personal interests.

Mr. Kurtz pats The Post and indirectly himself on the back for instigating the investigation that led to Mr. Haddow's conviction. This is because Mr. Kurtz wrote the earlier article he refers to. We wonder whether Mr. Kurtz had such a vested interest in the story that his decision to escalate a conflict of interest into a "kickback" was itself the product of a conflict of interest.

BRIAN P. GETTINGS

FRANK W. DUNHAM JR.

Arlington