No good deed goes unpunished, it sometimes seems. And for Chris Webber, it certainly might have looked that way. But then, not everything is as it first appears.

Here was Webber, director of educational services for a Tulsa, Okla., company called MasterMind Internet Services Inc. (he’s a key player in our Page One exclusive by Assistant Editor Cara Branigan). Webber was just trying to be a good guy, he explains. He was trying to help 120 understaffed, little schools in rural Oklahoma qualify for desperately needed eRate assistance.

And what happens? First, the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Services Administrative Co. (SLD), that’s the federal eRate agency, and later, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) pounce on him. The FCC issues a ruling that none of the 120 schools can qualify for the eRate discounts Webber helped them apply for. Right off the bat, that makes those little Oklahoma schools not OK. The decision will cost them $20 million.

But the punishment continues and spreads. The incident opens up a whole new can of consequences.

Webber’s ostensibly good deed inspires the eRate agency to throw out an additional 312 applications of school districts from coast to coast. How much that’s costing education no one knows. But if the applications of 120 little schools represent $20 million, it might be safe to guess that disallowing nearly three times that number will amount to another $60 million or so in lost discounts.

So now, the price of good deeds looks to be inflating faster than the tab for a tankful at a truck stop in Pekin, Ill.

But hold on just a minute. The SLD could insist its action is thoroughly justified. Letting an internet services vendor fill out and sign an eRate application form and then field questions about a school’s internet needs is a little like asking a policeman to guard inventory at a doughnut shop. What rival internet vendor, after all, is going to want to contact a competitor to solicit a school’s eRate business?

But even if, in retrospect, letting a vendor fill out the forms was not such a terrific idea, couldn’t the eRate agency just let the affected schools correct the oversight and resubmit the paperwork. Did the SLD and FCC really need to wield an $80-million sledge hammer?

From my perspective, the answer is, Absolutely.

The action is painful and expensive to be sure, and the 452 schools affected and their students surely will be the poorer for it in the short term. But I believe the SLD and FCC truly had little choice, because they must be mindful of the long-term impact on the eRate.

Over the whole course of the eRate’s existence, it has become abundantly clear that an array of forces would like nothing better than to slip a shiv between its shoulderblades. A $2.45 billion-a-year program, especially one strongly associated with a major presidential candidate, attracts a lot of powerful enemies.

And nothing sets off a fury at the congressional bureau of investigation these days like allegations of wrongdoing affecting something associated with Al Gore. As a result, the guardians of the eRate are wise to insist the program remain purer than Caesar’s wife. It’s either that, or court a subpoena from Chairman Brutus.

For the long-term, the decisive actions by the SLD and FCC were exactly right. Better to eliminate even the appearance of wrongdoing than to waffle and dawdle and jeopardize the whole $2.45 billion kit and caboodle.