The Golden Whistle

DOUGLAS KEETH, a former corporate vice president for finance at United Technologies Corporation, is going down in history as the highest-ranking whistle-blower so far, and quite probably the richest to date.

Mr. Keeth supplied evidence of overbilling on a Pentagon contract with Sikorsky Aircraft, enabling the government to recover $150 million, from which he was awarded a 15 percent commission, a tidy $22.5 million.

But the news is not truly about Keeth's very golden whistle. The real point is that this latest refunding brings to $738 million the steadily rising paybacks to the government since whistle-blowing legislation was reinforced in 1986. Recoveries this year alone are expected to add up to another $500 million.

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Besides establishing the well-tempered whistle as the most profitable of musical instruments, these figures represent a significant change of attitude. Outrageously priced coffeepots and toilet seats - once treated rather indulgently as a stock joke about Pentagon procurement practices - typify the sort of careless greed and extravagance now being taken most seriously.

The Pentagon may continue to wrap its budget requests in dire warnings of a perilous world. But defense contracts - lacking the justification of the old battle cry, ``national security!'' - are going to be subject to the same questioning scrutiny as appropriations for domestic programs. If the stereotypical welfare queen is fair game, then so are dud missile systems and flawed aircraft.

These are the new rules of the game, and they will make for fairer as well as more stringent criteria for budget cutting.

Politicians who persist in shrugging their shoulders and accepting the inevitability of government waste are out of touch with their constituents. Citizens punished by belt-tightening in the private sector have every right - especially at tax time - to expect their government to be scrupulously careful in spending public money.

Caught between an awesome deficit and a wish list topped by a comprehensive health plan, taxpayers are demanding strict accountability in all kinds of ways. The campaign slogan, ``It's the economy, stupid,'' may be taking on a second meaning of determined frugality - blowing the whistle on all splurging, excess, and waste. Let those whistles continue to tune up in Washington, and across the land.

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