At the offices of the Federal Energy Administration, Douglas G. Robinson spends a lot of time these days waiting for a call from the White House. At the moment, it seems the call may be some time in coming, if it comes.
Robinson, a 33-year-old FEA consultant, has been sweating out a hoped-for offer of a top job in the Carter administration's energy program.
Until recently it seemed likely he would get it. He was a high-ranking legal officer with the FEA under President Ford and one of the most experienced government energy lawyers in town. And last August he joined Jimmy Carter's campaign staff as an adviser on energy policy, thereby earning a shot at an administration position.
But last week, a 3-year-old controversy growing out of the 1973 oil crisis re-emerged to haunt him and apparently, sever his connection with the White House switchboard.
Robinson's name surfaced at President Carter's news conference Tuesday when a reporter said information about his "transgressions" had been furnished by Rep. John E. Moss (D-Calif.), chairman of a House Commerce subcommittee. Carter said he didn't know anything about the matter but would check.
The alleged "transgressions" were summarized in documents Moss sent to Carter's transition team Dec. 8. Moss, in an accompanying letter, said he had not come to "any conclusions" about Robinson but wanted to alert the transition officials about him. Robinson had, Moss wrote, "vigorously" opposed grand jury proceedings to investigate petroleum price overcharges to Jacksonville, Fla., in 1974.
The complex case began in 1973 when Jacksonville claimed it was overcharged millions of dollars for fuel oil by a company called Ven-Fuel, Inc., during the Arab oil embargo. The U.S. attorney in Jacksonville and U.S. Customs officials set out to prosecute the company.
The allegation against Robinson is that he sought to head off the eriminal prosecution and tried to influence the government into dropping the grand jury probe.
The Moss subcommittee staff prepared a document listing examples of Robinson's "opposition to criminal action and his desire to halt the grand jury proceedings." It refers to an October, 1974, meeting at which Robinson, according to one account, said there was "no violation of FEA regulations and very likely no violation of law."
Robinson, in an interview, said his judgement as a lawyer was that there was no criminal violation of FEA regulations that could be successfully pressed in court. It would have required proving "willful" criminal intent by the corporation's officers and he doubted that could be done. Instead, he had favored pressing a civil action that might obtain compensation for Jacksonville.
"The implication (of the Moss documents) is that I'm soft on oil companies and not that this was just a lawyerly debate," Robinson said. "I don't know how it's possible to get that from the Ven-Fuel case."
The subcommittee staff refused to discuss the case on the record, as did, with one exception. John Briggs, the U.S. attorney in Jacksonville who had differed with Robinson about criminal prosecutions.
Last month, the grand jury returned an indictment charging Ven-Fuel with conspiring to bring fuel oil into the United States under false entry papers and using a fraudulently obtained import license. Ven-Fuel is jointly owned by a Texas company and an agency of the Venequelan government.
Robinson claims the indictment supports his view of the case since the company was not charged under FEA regulations.
Briggs said he could not make a case under FEA regulations because FEA officials, including Robinson, would not testify that those regulations were applicable to Ven-Fuel's acts in the Jacksonville case. Robinson agreed he would not have interpreted FEA regulations in such a manner because he did not consider them applicable.
Another section of the Moss staff summary against Robinson implies that the FEA attempted to make a deal with Ven-Fuel attempted to make a deal with Ven-Fuel in connection with intended civil charges. It recounts a meeting on Oct. 16, 1974, with Robinson present at which ". . . FEA as much as assured Ven-Fuel that in return for their cooperation there will be no criminal charges sought (by FEA) . . . The idea was to keep the entire investigation civil rather than criminal."
That version was supplied to Moss' subcommittee by Peter Dearing, formerly assistant U.S. prosecutor in Jacksonville, who had favored presource, according to the summary, was Allen Hausman, then an attorney in the Justice Department's Civil Division.
Dearing said last week that he recalled hearing such an account in a telephone call from Hausman, who had been at the meeting held in Washington.
However, Hausman said last week, "I don't have any recollection of a conversation of that type taking place. It is unlikely that it took place.
Asked about the suggestion he had promised Ven-Fuel help in escaping criminal charges, Robinson said, "There is nothing to that. I never promised anyone anything."
The White House said that it is investigating Robinson's case and will make its findings public.
An earlier investigation was made for Carter's transition team by Leslie Goldman, counsel to a Senate subcommittee on oil and natural gas. Goldman characterized the dispute as one in which "reasonable men and reasonable prosecutors could differ" and concluded that Robinson's behavior was not improper.
"Rather than concluding that Mr. Robinson is soft on oil companies, may reading of the available public record in this matter leads me to the conclusion that Mr. Robinson tends to be a careful and thorough lawyer," Goldman wrote in a memo to the transition team in December.