Justice Department special counsel Paul J. Curran indulged in a bit of lighthearted hyperbole when he pronounced his verdict on the financial dealings between Bert Lance's National Bank of Georgia and Jimmy Carter's family peanut warehouse.

"Every nickel and every peanut have been traced into and out of the warehouse," Curran declared on Oct. 16, 1979, "and no funds were unlawfully diverted in either direction."

The investigation had been ordered to determine if money from the Carter warehouse -- or loans obtained by using its peanut stock as collateral -- had been secretly funneled into Jimmy Carter's presidential race at a crucial period in the 1976 primary campaign. Curran concluded that everything had been strictly on the up-and-up.

But a painstaking, three-month review of the Justice Department investigation by my reporters Peter Peckarsky and Peter Grant indicate that Curran's proud boast may have been off by about 18,696,000 nickels -- or enough peanuts to make a Republican elephant fat and happy.

Government records of the Carter warehouse transactions show a discrepancy of nearly $1 million worth of peanuts purchased by the warehouse in 1976. Curran reported that Carter's peanut partnership, in which the president owns a 62 percent interest, bought 24,724,505 pounds of peanuts in 1976. But a government document shows purchases of only 20,208,555 pounds.

The 4,515,950-pound difference would have been worth $934,801.65 at the 1976 support price of $414 a ton. There is at least a possibility, if no proof, that money was diverted illegally to the Carter campaign. This was nearly $1 million, mind you, that slipped through the cracks.

How does Curran explain his massive overestimate of the Carter warehouse purchases? He refused to comment.

An even bigger discrepancy in the Carter peanut transactions was mentioned by Curran and rather breezily explained away. It involves the period from March 23 to May 14, 1976, when the Federal Election Commission held up payment of matching campaign funds while it was reorganized to conform to a Supreme Court decision.

This left the presidential campaign short of funds that Carter had counted on. During precisely that same period -- March 23 to May 14, 1976 -- Carter's warehouse had an outstanding loan balance of $1.15 million with Bert Lance's bank.

The loan agreement required Carter's warehouse to keep peanuts in bonded storage equal to 125 percent of the loan amount. Yet there wasn't a single peanut in bonded storage during that period.

The Carter explanation, accepted by Curran, is that the loan collateral was in unbonded storage. Oddly enough, initial campaign reports from Carter showed $1.15 million in assets that were deleted from later, amended reports.

And curiously, on May 14, 1976, the very day the-President Ford signed legislation putting the FEC back into business and assuring resumption of matching payments, Carter's warehouse put $665.550 worth of peanuts into bonded storage.

Was the unbonded collateral doing double duty during the seven-week period when the Carter campaign was cut off from badly needed federal matching funds? Curan, the prosecutor selected by the Cater administration to investigate Carter, brushed off the question.

Footnote: Bert Lance sold his interest in the National Bank of Georgia in 1978 to Ghaith Pharaon, who is described in a Senate investigator's memo as "son of the man who advises the Saudi Arabian royal family how to deal with the United States." Pharaon wound up acquiring 98.4 percent of the bank's total stock, a transaction that the memo characterized as "a dubious investment in a bank that had been losing money and doesn't pay dividends."

Thus the Saudis inherited an $830,000 Carter debt and immediately granted the president more favorable repayment terms, which was worth $60,000 to him in 1978 alone. For two years, the president remained under heavy financial obligation to the Saudis while he was making presidential decisions favorable to Saudi Arabia.

Yet Curran, according to the Senate memo, "considered but rejected the idea of investigating whether Carter's indebtedness to a Saudi-controlled bank constituted a conflict of interest."