The Energy Department delayed a major enforcement case against an Oklahoma oil company for two years after receiving a telephone call from deputy budget director Joseph R. Wright Jr., who has a financial interest in the firm, officials confirmed yesterday.
Wright, who heads the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, spoke in 1982 with Rayburn Hanzlik, head of the department's Economic Regulatory Administration, on behalf of the oil company run by Wright's father.
Wright owns company stock worth more than $250,000. Since his call, the department has taken no action in the $16 million oil overcharge case.
The FBI, the Energy Department's inspector general and a House subcommittee are investigating the matter.
Wright told The Wall Street Journal, which first published the story yesterday, that his call was a mistake, saying: "I blew it from a PR public relations standpoint."
Wright, the second-ranking official at the Office of Management and Budget, was not answering questions yesterday. He said in a statement that he did not dispute The Journal's report, but added:
"All I asked for was a meeting -- no action one way or the other. And I identified the company as my family company. At no time did I ask for favored treatment for the company. At my insistence, neither my father nor his associates ever discussed the details of the case with me . . . ."
Neither Hanzlik nor the Energy Department would comment yesterday, citing the pending investigations. Hanzlik told The Journal that Wright had not mentioned his personal 3 percent stake in the company.
"A 120-second phone call is not what I would consider a fix," Hanzlik told the newspaper, adding that Wright had used poor judgment and created "an appearance problem."
Wright's family company, Anchor Gasoline Corp. of Tulsa, said in a statement that its officials contacted Hanzlik in 1982 "to discuss settling the case on a reasonable basis" and were providing additional information during the two-year lull in the case.
Anchor said a separate $23 million overcharge case filed against its refining subsidiary in January more than two years after Energy Department lawyers recommended the action was "completely invalid" and would be vigorously contested by the firm.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee, said the panel is examining "possible special favorable treatment for Wright's family-owned company . . . by the Department of Energy."
The Energy Department's case against Anchor is one of more than 500 alleging violations of federal price controls in effect on oil from 1973 to 1981. The department originally asked for $2 million in penalties in the case; Anchor offered to pay $500,000.
Wright called Hanzlik in September 1982, days after a formal complaint in the case was filed by the department's now-defunct Kansas City enforcement office. Weeks later, the case was removed from that office.
After filing a formal complaint, Hanzlik's office generally goes to court or reaches a settlement with the company to repay those overcharged. "They never took the next step," one person familiar with the probe said. "They still haven't."
Robert Wehrle-Einhorn, the former department lawyer in Kansas City who handled the case, told The Journal that, when he inquired about the unusual delay, he learned that "pressure was coming from a high-level official . . . "
In December, the department gave Dingell's subcommittee a list of pending overcharge cases that did not include Anchor. A department official later told the panel that this was an error.
In January, days after the Energy Department inspector general entered the case, the department refiled essentially the same allegations made against Anchor in 1982.
Wright told The Journal that his father complained repeatedly that Anchor could not get the case settled. Wright reported on his financial-disclosure statement that he has been reimbursed by his father for trips to Tulsa to discuss business matters. repeatedly that Anchor could not get the case settled. Wright reported on his financial-disclosure statement that he has been reimbursed by his father for trips to Tulsa to discuss business matters.