THE JURY'S VERDICT in Atlanta was a victory for Bert Lance. Although the jurors couldn't agree on three counts, they acquitted him on nine of them and the judge had dismissed the others as the trial began.
Mr. Lance has complained bitterly that the federal prosecutors were treating him with unusual rigor and severity. That is true. It was both necessary and desirable. When a man has held high political office, and when that man continues to make much of his close connection to the White House, he forfeits any claim to the kind of discretionary restraint that might seem suspicious to other citizens. Throughout this affair Mr. Lance has persisted in advertising his close friendship with President Carter and his access to him. When careful investigation opened large questions about Mr. Lance's record as a banker, it was obviously and emphatically essential that the Justice Department should pursue the case in a manner that permitted not the smallest inference of favoritism or political protection.
The demonstration of vigorous and impartial prosecution, without regard for the defendant's connections, was the Justice Department's primary responsibility in this case. Mr. Lance is right in saying that the prosecutors cast an unusually wide net. Some of the charges were weaker than others, and in other circumstances might have been dropped by the department. But in this instance the department took the whole case into the courtroom and spread it on a public record. That was the right choice.
This immensely complex affair began nearly three years ago, with the federal regulator's reports on the Georgia bank of which Mr. Lance had been president. Among other things, there was a pattern of large, sustained and repeated overdrafts in his and his relative's accounts. There were also large overdrafts extended to the Carter family peanut business.
The first question, by far the most important one, was whether any of this money had been funneled into the Carter presidential campaign. A special prosecutor, Paul J. Curran, was appointed to look into that one. Last October he reported that there had been much mismanagement, but none of the money had gone into politics. The other line of inquiry, into Mr. Lance's conduct as a banker, led to the trial that has now ended. It demonstrated that Mr. Lance has little regard for the common idea of propriety, but the jury did not find that he had commited any crime.
The public interest required full investigation and thorough disclosure to the public. That interest has now been served. Like the special prosecutor's report, the Atlanta jury's verdict was a careful one, reached after a long examination of the case, and it derserves to be accepted as final.