The Justice Department under Jimmy Carter has been less than vigorous in prosecuting politically sensitive cases. Sources inside the Justice Department have described a disturbing pattern of selective prosecution, foot-dragging and deliberate mishandling that has had the net effect of letting politically influential defendants off the hook.

Here are a few examples of the Carter Justice Department's deplorable record:

The investigation of the Carter family peanut warehouse business was delayed for two years, until the statute of limitations prevented prosecution of some potential election-law violations. Then, instead of an independent special prosecutor, a Justice Department special counsel was put in charge of the probe. The counsel, Paul Curran, conducted an investigation that left many important areas untouched and many questions unanswered. The president's own deposition was kept confidential -- a favor that would not have been permissible if an independent prosecutor had handled the case.

The Justice Department attorneys handling the Bert Lance case -- knowing they wouldn't help their careers if they succeeded in convicting the president's old Georgia buddy -- were outmaneuvered by defense attorneys.

So much detail was introduced into the already complicated case that the jurors were understandably mystified. Of the 12 counts left in by the judge, Lance won acquittal on nine and a deadlocked decision on the other three.

An attempt by Rebert Vesco to bribe his way out of legal difficulties eventually wound up before a federal grand jury. But the grand jury foreman has disclosed in sworn testimony that the Justice Department prosecutors systematically tried to shoot down their own case, by blocking the grand jurors their access to transcripts of the proceedings and attempting to keep them from hearing evidence damaging to the president's Georgia intimate, Charles Kirbo. Though the Justice Department has denied the grand jury foreman's charges, Senate investigators are looking into the possibility of a cover-up.

Special prosecutor Arthur Christy was appointed last year to determine whether Carter's White House chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, snorted cocaine at a New York City disco or elsewhere. The case is before a federal grand jury, but my sources say that Christy seems as interested in discrediting Jordan's accusers as in finding out if Carter's confidant used illegal drugs.

Dr. Peter Bourne, the president's adviser on drug legislation, was forced to resign after The Washington Post disclosed that he had written an improper prescription for the widely abused drug Quaalude, to be picked up by a White House employee under a fictitious name. I also reported that Bourne himself had used cocaine and marijuana at a party thrown by NORML, the pot-legislation lobby.

When Bourne resigned, he charged that the use of marijuana and cocaine was not unusual among the White House staff. Yet neither the Justice Department nor its Drug Enforcement Administration chose to follow up the potentially damaging charges -- while thousands of less-favored Americans are prosecuted each year for use of these illegal substances.

The Justice Department has persistently denied that members of Congress were specifically targeted by the FBI's Abscam influence-buying caper. But sources have told my associate Gary Cohn that investigations of some public officials were vigorously pursued, while leads against others were never followed up.

Though the FBI denies that House Speaker Tip O'Neill was ever an Abscam target, I have seen detailed evidence that the undercover agents offered $75,000 as "bait" for the speaker. The only reason O'Neill -- a close associate of Sen. Edward Kennedy -- was never contacted was that the FBI's go-between exaggerated his ability to produce the speaker.

My staff investigation has turned up a number of cases that have been delayed or have fallen through because young, inexperienced Justice Department attorneys have been assigned to them. One, for example, involves an alleged payoff scheme involving a New York Teamsters Union local and American executives of some of the top Japanese electronics companies. A confidential investigative report dated April 7, 1977, contains extensive evidence -- but still no indictments have been returned.

It would be inaccurate to say that the administration of justice under Jimmy Carter has been uneven. In fact, the record shows a leniency toward suspected offenders who happen to have good connections at the Carter White House.