Washington — Despite the low public esteem of American politicians, those charged with improprieties are enjoying a surprising run of success in escaping conviction. In little over one year, seven persons current or former Washington political figures have won acquital or dismissal of an assortment of corruptions charges -- often in jury trials.
The latest is Bert Lance, the former federal budget director and friend of President Carter, who was cleared April 30 in Atlanta of nine bank fraud charges.
Only three defendants of similar political standing have been convicted during the same period. And even two of these were nearly spared -- one on an initial hung jury, another on a temporary judicial exoneration.
The recent string of defeats suffered by corruption prosecutors is leading some critics to raise questions of professional competency and is stirring rumblings of discontent within the US Department of Justice itself.
The long losing streak:
* The acquittal of Mr. Lance.
* Dismissal in Febraury of charges against former Rep. Henry Helstoski (D) of New Jersey that he had taken bribes for assisting illegal aliens, after the US Supreme Court in June had granted him constitutional immunity from evidence based on his legislative actions.
* Acquittal in November of Rep. Claude (Buddy) Leach (D) of Louisiana on vote-buying charges. A second trial is scheduled this year on campaign finance allegations.
* Dismissal in August of perjury charges against former Rep. Nick Galifianakis (D) of North Carolina -- the last of the government's court cases in the two-year investigation of alleged South Korean influence buying. The probe resulted in the jailing of just one of the 31 current and former lawmakers who accepted Korean funds.
* Dismissal in April, 1979, of local assault charges against Rep. Michael O. (Ozzie) Myers (D) of Pennsylvania. (Congressman Myers, however, was indicated last month by a federal grand jury on bribery and conspiracy charges growing out of the ABSCAM investigation, along with fellow Pennsylvania Rep. Raymond Lederer , also a Democrat.)
* Acquittal in April, 1979, of former Rep. Otto Passman (D) of Louisiana on accusations of accepting illegal gifts from South Korean rice dealer Tong Sun Park, as well as tax evasion and conspiracy.
The list of comparable courtroom victories during the same 13-month span is much shorter.
The conviction of former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel on charges of mail fraud and racketeering was upheld last month by the US Supreme Court. Earlier, he had apparently been cleared in federal appeals court.
Illinois Attorney General Williams J. Scott -- at the time also a candidate for the Republican nomination for US senator -- was convicted in March of federal income tax evasion.
Former Rep. Daniel Flood (D) of Pennyslvania pleaded guilty in February to a misdemeanor conspiracy charge in return for dismissal of more serious charges of bribery, perjury, and conspiracy. A previous trial one year earlier ended with a deadlocked jury.
These cases represent only a fraction of the hundreds of political figures at all levels of government indicted anually by the Justice Department -- 666 of them in 1979. But they rank as the most publicy visible and frequently the largest consumers of departmental resources.
The Lance case alone is estimated by defense attorneys to have cost the Justice Department three years of work and $7 million. (Three charges of falsifying loan applications still are pending against Mr. Lance; a federal judge in Atlanta will rule on a dismissal motion next month.)
The government's three-year overall record of prosecuting corruption was defended by Assistant Attorney General Philip Heymann, shortly before the Lance acquittal, as "one I'm proud of."
But in other quarters, criticism is beginning to arise.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, a member of the Senate committee that oversees the Justice Department, recently said he was "appalled" by the performance of the department's unit handling official corruption cases.
Some close observers of the department, such as James A. Goodman, Washington representative of a New York-based watchdog, group known as the Committee for Public Justice, question prosecutors' heavy reliance on conspiracy laws that entail the often-difficult task of proving the defendant's intent to break a law.