Billions of dollars in Energy Department programs are audited "only glancingly," leaving the potential for widespread fraud and abuse, DOE's inspector general told Congress yesterday.

Because of personnel restrictions, however, J. Kenneth Mansfield said the 98-person staff of the inspector's office has been able to uncover only 'a fraction of the wrongdoing that may be occuring."

Thus far, Mansfield said, the largest potential offenders appear to be the DOE's beleaguered strategic petroleum reserve program, and programs to wealtherize and insulate low-income housing.

"Our IG staff is too small to enable us to discharge our statutory responsibilities," Mansfield testified before a Senate governmental affairs sub-committee, Mansfield has asked that the inspector general's staff for the 19,000-employee department be raised to 155.

DOE sources say the request of additional manning has been blocked by administration officials.

As an illustration of the kinds offenses that could be occurring elsewhere, Mansfield said that his office has discovered "suspected criminality" involving "bribes and large-scale thefts" in connection with the DOE's strategic petroleum reserve program.

Mansfield declined to detail the extend of the alleged offenses in connection with the strategic petroleum reserve program, but did say that information would soon be passed to the Justice Department.

As an illustration of the kinds of unauthorized practices DOE's auditing arm has discovered, inspectors found that DOE paid more than $1 million to contract drillers for "idling" their rigs, and that one of DOE's contractors, Bayou Oil Field Construction, Inc., had been using convict labor, in violation of federal procurement regulations.

The multibillion strategic petroleum reserve program is now a year behind schedule and has been the continuing target of congressional criticism.

The inspector general's office also discovered more than $100 million in cost overruns in the department's H-Coal project, a coal liquefication project now long behind schedule.

Earlier, the auditors found DOE regulators had been adhering to "a double standard" by allowing the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry trade association, special access to critical oil regulatory changes before they were published.

Lynn Coleman, the department's general counsel, disputed allegations that there were extensive abuses within the DOE. "We did not check our integrity at the door when we entered the department," Coleman said yesterday. Suggestions that there are widespread abuses within the DOE have also been previously denied by Deputy Energy Secretary John F. O'Leary.

Sen. Lawton Chiles D-Fla.), who chaired yesterday's hearing, described the situation as "incredible." Chiles office said he intends to introduce legislation general's office, and make it more independent of DOE's budget.