WHEN THE ENERGY CRISIS first exploded in Congress in 1973, William Van Ness Jr., Howard Feldman and Lynn Sutcliffe were right in the middle. Key congressional staffers, they had major roles in shaping the first legislation designed to meet the nation's energy shortages.
They still are in the middle of the energy crunch, this time as partners in one of Washington's newest hot law firms -- Van Ness, Feldman & Sutcliffe -- most of whose members come from Capitol Hill committees that played major roles in the field of energy. True to form, most of their clients come from the energy field.
It's a different version of the revolving door -- this one moving from the Hill rather than the executive branch to a lucrative private practice.
"We're all good friends. It's like a tribe of brothers," said Van Ness. "We all had come to know each other and had gained a good deal of respect."
For instance, Van Ness and Charles B. Curtis, a founding parther who quit the firm to become chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, were deeply involved in Congress' first efforts to write a comprehensive energy bill.
That was back in 1973, when Van Ness was chief counsel for Sen. Henry M. Jackson's Senate Interior Committee (now the linergy Committee) and Curtis had the same job with the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, which handled energy legislation. No bill was passed that year, but the friendship was forged.
At about the same time, Feldman was chief counsel for Jackson's Senate investigations subcommittee, which forced the top executives of seven major companies to deny under oath that their firms were hoarding oil to jack up prices.
Sutcliffe was counsel to a Senate Commerce Committee, which had responsibility for pipeline legislation.
New partners who have joined the firm since it was founded a little more than two years ago have followed the same pattern. One of the newest firm members is Grenville Garside, who replaced Van Ness as counsel at the Senate Energy Committee. Another committee staff member, Ben Yamagata, and Robert G. Szabo, former legislative assistant to the committee's ranking majority member behind Jackson, Sen. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), also have joined the firm recently.
About the only lawyers in the firm who did not come from the Hill are G. William Frick, former general counsel of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Alan L. Mintz, who worked in the Department of Energyhs office of exceptions and applications.
While Van Ness likes to talk about the firm's work representing the Eskimos who live on Alaska's Northern Slope, the firm also has a full plate of clients in the energy field, including the Northern Tier Pipeline Co. and oil, gas and coal companies.
Van Ness said lawyers in the firm are well aware of possible conflicts, as indeed they should be.
It was Garside, the newest partner who was the chief counsel of the Senate Energy Committee when it held up the nomination of Lynn R. Coleman to be general counsel of the Department of Energy because of possible conflicts of interest. Coleman had been a partner in former Texas Gov. John Connolly's Houston law firm, Vinson & Elkins, which represents energy companies here and in Texas.