THE INDICTMENT of Bert Lance goes a long way beyond all of the previous reports and hearing records. The indictment says that the various financial manipulations that became public in 1977, the year when he came to the Office of Management and Budget and then left it, were only part of a larger and more calculated conspiracy. The nature of the alleged conspiracy was to keep making new loans and overdrafts to pay off old loans and overdrafts, ofter unsecured and ofter at no interest. The grand jury says that this rapid shuffle of money involved 40 banks, and that the actual or potential losses to them were in the range of half a million dollars.

The indictment has a certain fascination, alleging a scheme that was both wildly complex and, for a time, highly successful. It was clear in the 1977 investigations that Mr. Lance had committed a number of legal violations of the sort that lawyers call technical. That is to say, they were violations but not of a magnitude, by themselves, likely to get Mr. Lance into serious trouble. For example, he had not reported loans as the law required. The indictment now claims much more. It charges that he was not merely reckless and careless, but criminal in organizing this pattern of loans deliberately to deceive hoth federal regulators and the bank stockholders who ultimately bore the expenses of Mr. Lance's style of management and style of life.

The public importance of the indictment has, of course, little to do with Mr. Lance himself and everything to do with his friend and patron, President Carter. It is not merely a matter of the personal pain for Mr. Carter; it is rather the powerful contribution that Mr. Lance has made, and continues to make, to a widespread opinion of Mr. Carter, which holds that the president is an honest man whose shortcoming lies in his knowledge and judgment of people.

There is no evidence that Mr. Carter was even aware of the Lance financil operation, and his honesty is reflected in his rule of absolutely no interference in the Justice Department's handling of the Lance case. There has been no sign of any political tampering with this prosecution. Even within the department it has been left, by all accounts, to the professionals in the Criminal Division.

So the White House emerges from the episode with honor. But, unhappily, ir remains true that Mr. Carter, unknowing, brought to the White House a close associate whose fortune turned out to be a pyramid of insiders' loans. Presidents can afford to make mistakes in policy. It can be more costly for them to make mistakes about the people with whom they deal at close range, and on whom they depend.