STEALING FROM any charity is a gutter crime, and no such act in this region has been more disgusting than the pocketing of nearly $500,000 some four years ago by the then-chief executive of the United Way of the National Capital Area, Oral Suer. That criminal act, coupled with sloppy oversight and gross greed among other executives, all but killed the unique, essential mission of the organization in this area. Only now -- a good two years after a thorough shake-up -- are people discovering that the United Way has cleaned up its act and is worthy of generous support.

Regaining public trust after such stomach-turning sleaze is bound to be slow. Yet as reported this month by The Post's Jacqueline L. Salmon, United Way's most recent fundraising drive brought in $39 million, an increase for the first time since scandal rocked the organization. Officials said they were especially pleased that the 2 percent increase was driven by pledges from Washington area corporations, which have been particularly cautious ever since the discovery of wrongdoing in the organization's top ranks. Donations from the private sector rose 10 percent in the campaign that ran from July 2004 to July of this year.

If there is renewed confidence in the current state of the local United Way, it is bolstered by management's cost cutting, consolidation of operations and other restructuring. Decisions to give are personal, and though agency-designation options are still available to donors, the United Way's new leaders are returning the charity to what it does best: focusing on specific local issues and delivering help through agencies that do not have the resources to do their own fundraising.

Today the United Way again is appealing to people who want expert volunteers and community leaders to weigh local needs and put their money where it can have the greatest impact. The restoration of public trust will continue to take time, but all the while, it will be the poor who suffer.