KEEPING corruption -- even the faintest whiff of potential abuse of public trust -- out of Massachusetts government need not be impossible. All it takes is a zealous state chief executive, unswervingly committed to seeing that only those of high integrity make his team and that those about whom there is a question are brushed speedily aside.
Certainly one of Gov. Michael S. Dukakis's strengths has been his emphasis on running a clean administration.
Throughout his years as governor he has enjoyed a reputation for not only keeping bad apples, but even spotted ones, out of the state's executive barrel.
This laudable concern that members of state government steer free of even the hint of misconduct was evident in one recent instance but perhaps not in another.
When a letter by John B. Duff, the state chancellor of higher education, soliciting support for a fund-raiser for House Speaker George Keverian, came to light in late October, Governor Dukakis responded swiftly to what he called a ``very serious matter.'' He prodded the state's board of regents, for whom Dr. Duff works, to investigate the matter and take appropriate action.
In contrast, a few weeks earlier when a member of the Dukakis administration was under increasing attack for his ongoing friendship with a convicted loan shark and gambler, there was no such gubernatorial rush to action. This, despite the fact that Robert H. Cunningham, the man in question, was the state's undersecretary of public safety, a post of considerable sensitivity.
In fairness to the governor and Mr. Cunningham, the issue was not a question of the gubernatorial aide having broken a law. But it hardly enhances the image of the Dukakis administration.
That is why Cunningham, who served in Dukakis's first administration as state civil defense director, had no choice but to resign. What may never be known is to what extent he was pressured into stepping out by Governor Dukakis.
The friendship between his undersecretary of public safety and Charles (Red) Donovan, or any other crime figure, even on a social basis, was more than just a serious error of judgment. Assuming that Cunningham did nothing wrong from a legal standpoint and in no way allowed his ties with a gambler to compromise his work for the state, he could hardly have expected it would go unnoticed.
Clearly, the governor was not about to fire him on grounds of guilt by association. He might, however, have shifted the undersecretary to a different post within the administration, at least temporarily, while the situation was investigated.
Better still, he might have suspended Cunningham pending a probe of the matter by the attorney general's office or some other appropriate investigative agency.
Why Dukakis, who knew about the situation for at least several weeks, waited so long to move, or make sure others did, can only be speculated. The delay kept the matter in the spotlight, and to have imagined that it would go away without decisive action seems to have been at best naive. And whatever the Dukakis shortcomings may be, they do not include naivet'e.
Certainly the whole affair and how it was handled by the Democratic state chief executive and his top aides provided the Republican opposition and other critics an opportunity to make the most of something in which could tarnish the administration's image.
It could give the GOP some of the campaign ammunition it needs to provide more than perhaps a token challenge to the 1986 Dukakis third-term aspirations.
Obviously, the Cunningham-Donovan relationship and other ties between the former undersecretary of public safety and those of perhaps less than impeccable character should be thoroughly investigated.
If only to satisy a sometimes skeptical public that there was no misconduct involved, which may well be the case, any such probe might be better entrusted instead to federal hands.
Instead of leaving such a matter to Suffolk County District Attorney Newman Flannagan, a Democrat, why not ask US Attorney William Weld, a Republican, to conduct the inquiry?