ROOTING OUT the famous unholy trio in government programs -- fraud, waste and abuse -- may not result in savings that will balance the budget. Still, it is a job that must be done, not only to save money but to maintain public support for programs that aid the poor. U.S. District Court Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who sentenced the first man convicted of food stamp fraud in the District last week, clearly agrees.

Milton L. Perry pleaded guilty to three counts of defrauding the federal government. He had a good job with the city's Department of Employment Services, earning $25,000 a year. But he misrepresented his income in order to obtain $5,550 in food stamps, $4,977 in rent subsidies and $6,362 in VA pensions. According to the court's pre-sentence report, he also fraudulently told the IRS that he had 7 children in order to avoid all income tax. This man is a natural candidate for a presidential anecdote.

Most white-collar criminals are not sent to prison. But Mr. Perry had already been given this break once. An earlier fraud conviction had resulted in a $22,000 fine, and he paid only $500 of that. That was enough for Judge Johnson. "You are a man with a venal heart," she told the defendant. "You've got larceny in your heart, and you don't care who you hurt. . . . Well, I want you to know that there are certain things that I as a judge must consider. I must consider rehabilitation. We have tried (that) and it wasn't effective. I must consider the nature of the crime and the penalties, therefore, and I must consider deterrence, not only to deter you, but to deter others who may choose to involve themselves in such unlawful conduct. . . . I do know this: somebody has got to call a halt to your conduct, and I stand prepared to do it today and I do it today." Five years in prison and a $21,000 fine.

The Perry case was an egregious one, but it should serve as a warning to those who think that stealing from the government is not really stealing at all. This kind of fraud is really taking money from the rightful beneficiaries of public assistance programs, the poor. As for the really big con men in this game, those doctors and nursing home operators convicted of Medicaid fraud, may they all come up for sentencing before judges like Judge Johnson.