Few government agencies have had critics as vitriolic and supporters as ardent as the Legal Services Corporation. To its supporters, LSC has done yeoman work in providing basic legal representation to the poor. To its critics, LSC has too often tried illegitimately to transform society. The evidence of Legal Services' good works has been strong enough to persuade the organized bar and both houses of Congress of its worthiness, and the agency has survived this administration's attempts to abolish it. But a report released Monday by the General Accounting Office charges that former LSC officials violated the law in their zeal to keep the program going.

It has long been illegal to use government money to influence legislation; this doesn't mean that appointees can't argue before Congress that their agency be re-funded, but it clearly does mean that they can't spend government money to organize grass-roots lobbying organizations around the country. Legal Services programs are under further prohibitions: a 1974 law prohibits "programs for the purpose of advocating public policies or encouraging political activities."

Yet, according to the GAO, this is just what Dan Bradley and other high Legal Services officials were doing in a meeting in Boulder, Colo., eight days before the Reagan administration took office. The "summarization"--one of many documents obtained by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) from LSC's current leaders--shows one official reporting on the setting up of a nationwide grass-roots lobbying campaign: "All we want are a majority of votes in the House and in the Senate. That's all we ever think about." "What is at stake," another says, "is the survival of many social benefits. . . . Legal Services is just a tool to get them." Still another describes how he got an LSC grant of $61,665 "to hire four field coordinators and pay printing, mailing and traveling costs associated with the objective"-- defeating California's Proposition 9 in June 1980.

Any fair reading of this discussion makes it clear that these were not borderline cases, on which reasonable people could disagree over whether the law was violated. Nor does this seem to have been an isolated incident; Mr. Sensenbrenner says the papers he obtained show many such violations, although the GAO has not analyzed them yet. Some of the former Legal Services officials have argued that they did nothing to violate the law. But it's plain that they were spending public money--the taxpayers' dollars--on political activity, not legal services.

Does any of this matter now? No one claims there were any criminal violations, and most of the individuals involved have left the program. The case for continuing the Legal Services program remains, in our view, strong. Still, these violations need to be noted--and pondered. Earlier this year squawks went up from advocacy groups and defense contractors when the Office of Management and Budget proposed new regulations to prevent the use of federal money for lobbying. Legal Services is not the first agency with officials convinced that their program is so important, so imbued with the public interest, that they are entitled to use public money to ensure its perpetuation. It's sad that, of all people, the custodians of a program justified by principles of fair play failed to understand this.