The General Accounting Office, an arm of Congress, has a well-deserved reputation for diligence, objectivity and first-class work in investigating expenditures made by the federal government. In response to a request made by a House subcommittee chairman and 11 senators, the GAO undertook an eight-month investigation of compensation and expense payments made to the president and members of the board of the Legal Services Corporation. We were among those greatly exercised about these payments, which appeared far too generous for quasi-public servants, and we want to set the record straight. The GAO report puts the facts into a better perspective.

The directors who served on the corporation's board during 1982, for example, did receive far more compensation and expense payments than their predecessors; the figures were 76 percent above those for fiscal 1981. But about three-quarters of that increase was due to the fact that the 1982 board worked more than twice as many days as the previous board, and most of the remaining increase was due to a statutory 15 percent increase in the per diem compensation rate paid to board members.

As for former chairman William F. Harvey, whom we strongly criticized because he charged the corporation $221 a day for traveling by car from his home in Indiana for each meeting, the GAO reports that he worked throughout these trips and was fully entitled to be paid for the time whether he had been traveling or not. Further, and to his credit, Mr. Harvey did not request compensation for 457 hours he worked on LSC matters during the year and did not, therefore, collect another $13,460 to which he was entitled. Board members William Olson, Frank Donatelli and David Satterfield III also elected not to accept compensation to which they were entitled.

In connection with the employment contract negotiated by the corporation's president, Donald P. Bogard, the agreement for a year's severance pay is way out of line; but Mr. Bogard's predecessors had six months' protection. And the club membership for which the taxpayers paid had unfortunately become, as we indicated nine months ago, standard. Thomas Erlich, the first LSC president, had previously complained that there were no suitable restaurants near the corporation's 15th Street office-- as denizens of that neighborhood ourselves we could point out more than a few--and persuaded the first board that he needed a club membership so that he could entertain prominent members of the bar. Mr. Erlich was also paid for regular trips between his home in California and for living expenses in Washington during his early service so that his children could complete the school year at home. So Mr. Bogard's similar arrangement had precedent. Finally, Mr. Erlich had managed to obtain another perk that not even Mr. Bogard received: a leased automobile that cost the taxpayers $5,250 over a four- year period.

In evaluating payments made by the Legal Services Corporation, the GAO compared LSC practices with those of two other federally funded corporations, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Synthetic Fuels Corporation. In this context, the LSC payments were not extraordinary. But we believe Congress should look again at the payments and perks given to these publicly financed organizations to see if they are compatible with the concept of public service. Is it really necessary, for example, to pay someone $135,000 to take on the presidency of the SFC when the vice president of the United States serves for considerably less? Is it right for the government to subsidize the mortgage-rate differential for an employee who sell an old home to move to Washington and to reimburse the employee for the tax he owes on that payment? Legal Services Corporation officials were not out of line with past practice or with other quasi- governmental corporations. We say that unequivocally. But it is time to take a look at where that line is drawn.