Paul L. Bloom, 70

Paul L. Bloom, 70; battled Big Oil in Carter years

Paul L. Bloom enforced federal regulations on oil pricing.
Paul L. Bloom enforced federal regulations on oil pricing. (Washington Post File Photo)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 7, 2009

Paul L. Bloom, 70, an Energy Department lawyer who led a Carter administration effort that recovered billions of dollars from major oil companies that had overcharged their customers, died Oct. 9 of pancreatic cancer at Montgomery Hospice's Casey House in Rockville. He lived in Chevy Chase.

After working as a natural resources lawyer in New Mexico, Mr. Bloom was named a special counsel for compliance at the newly created Department of Energy in late 1977. His quixotic task was to go after Big Oil to seek restitution for violations of federal regulatory laws.

Described in a 1980 National Journal article as "an ambling and amiable man with an impish sense of humor," Mr. Bloom liked to pass himself off as a country lawyer unaccustomed to the ways of Washington. But his staff of 450 lawyers and accountants quickly set out to examine the records of the nation's 34 largest oil companies.

"We have 65 people at the Exxon site every day," Mr. Bloom told The Washington Post in 1978, "and they are poring over microfilm machines, practically going blind."

The wide-ranging investigation enraged the oil business, prompting a Conoco spokesman to complain that Mr. Bloom's office was "regularly flooding the news media with releases based on unsubstantiated charges and incorrect assumptions designed to demoralize the petroleum industry and mislead the public."

The business magazine Fortune saw him as "a bear of a cop" whose "tactic seems to be to allege the largest violations he can possibly claim while keeping a straight face."

Battling resistance from the oil industry, Mr. Bloom concluded that after new regulations had gone into effect in the 1970s, the petroleum firms had defrauded their customers and the public of about $11 billion. Under the threat of criminal prosecution, he negotiated settlements with the companies, which ultimately paid back about $6 billion over the next decade.

In one instance, Mr. Bloom reached a $280 million settlement with Standard Oil of Indiana, also known as Amoco. As part of the agreement, the company paid $71 million to the government. That money accrued $4 million in interest while sitting in federal coffers.

As a grand gesture on his final full day in office, Jan. 19, 1981, Mr. Bloom donated the $4 million -- in installments of $1 million each -- to four charities: the National Council of Churches, the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities USA and the Jewish Federations of North America. Each organization had a program to help poor people with their heating bills.

Mr. Bloom was seen, depending on one's point of view, as either a Robin Hood or an enemy of the state. The incoming Reagan administration threatened to prosecute him for wantonly wasting federal funds, but his supporters saw him as a government official who put cash directly in the hands of the people who needed it most.

"I felt that if I could find a cost-effective way to reach poor people, I had an obligation to do so," Mr. Bloom said at the time.

In short order, the funding for Mr. Bloom's office was reduced from $52 million to $12 million, effectively gutting its ability to take on Big Oil. Under pressure from Reagan-appointed DOE officials, each of the charities returned $250,000 to the government.

By the late 1980s, after several cases initiated by Mr. Bloom had wound their way through the courts, the oil companies had refunded an estimated $6 billion to their customers and the government.

"For a comparatively minuscule federal investment," a 1987 Washington Monthly article stated, "the program has achieved spectacular success."

Paul Laurence Bloom was born May 14, 1939, in Norfolk and grew up in Portsmouth, Va. He graduated from the University of Chicago and, in the early 1960s, from law school at the University of New Mexico. He spent 12 years as chief counsel for the New Mexico state engineer, specializing in water rights.

After leaving his special counsel post, Mr. Bloom stayed in Washington while working for a New Mexico law firm on energy and water law. He also represented several Indian tribes.

Mr. Bloom led a long legal fight that, in 2003, defeated a strip-mining effort that threatened the Zuni Salt Lake in New Mexico, a sacred site to the Zuni Indians and other tribes. He retired in 2005.

Survivors include his wife of 32 years, Marjorie Rosenthal Bloom of Chevy Chase; three children, Adam Bloom of Manhattan, N.Y., Judah Bloom of Bellevue, Wash., and Ester Bloom of Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.; and a brother.

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