WHAT'S THE right rate of compensation for the people who run the Legal Services Corporation? Their job is to provide legal aid to people who cannot afford their own lawyers, and it continues to seem indecent to us that the people in charge should exploit their positions to run up their per diem payments and perquisites to unusually high figures, even if they're not exceeding the rate set by law. But the corporation's chairman and president have their defenders, and on the opposite page we publish a column by James J. Kilpatrick making the best case possible for their conduct. Readers will note that there is no difference between us with regard to the facts. It is a matter of interpretation and judgment.

Mr. Kilpatrick mentions that the current board's consulting fees are 117 percent above those of its predecessor. The 15 percent rise in per diem accounts for part--but obviously not all--of the difference. Some of the rest can be ascribed to the example of the board's chairman who, for instance, charged the government $221 per day for driving here from Indianapolis, because he doesn't like to fly. Mr. Kilpatrick also notes that one year's severance pay granted, by Mr. Harvey, to incoming board president Donald Bogard, is a departure from previous practice. We can understand why Mr. Bogard, appointed by a lame-duck board, would want such protection. But should the government grant it?

Certainly this board has not been so generous with the clients whom Legal Services is supposed to serve. Presidential counselor Edwin Meese III points out that none of this would have gone on if the Legal Services Corporation had been abolished as the president advocated. True enough. But Congress explicitly and emphatically voted to continue this program. If the leaders of the current board continue to compensate themselves generously while working to cut legal services to the poor, they should expect to be criticized. We say it again: the conduct of the board's leaders is disgusting. Does the president want to endorse such conduct by reappointing them?