The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week asked Energy Secretary John S. Herrington to "clarify" remarks he made last month about rejecting government lawyers' efforts "to double the amount of claims" against oil companies for overpricing in the 1970s.
In a letter to Herrington, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) requested copies of the proposal cited during two speeches to oil industry officials about the ongoing federal effort to collect more than $6 billion in overcharges when oil and petroleum products were under federal price controls.
"If you rejected any such proposal, please explain why you did so," Dingell wrote. "If there was no such proposal -- as some now suggest -- I would also appreciate knowing what prompted the remarks."
In speeches Aug. 7 to the Forum Club in Houston and the Independent Petroleum Association of America in Dallas, Herrington said DOE lawyers the previous week had proposed "doubling the amount of claims using a unique, new and different revolutionary legal theory of recovery."
"This is . . . at a time when I'm trying to to end this program, not expand it," he said. "You can't blame them for being inventive, but this is 1985."
A week later, Rayburn Hanzlik, the official in charge of pursuing the pricing violations, resigned, but said his decision had nothing to do with Herrington's remarks.
Hanzlik said he did not know what Herrington meant by "a unique, new and different revolutionary legal theory." Other DOE officials have declined to comment.
Over the past four years, the government has collected some $1.8 billion through suits and settlements with 916 companies. Critics have charged that the Reagan administration often has been too willing to settle for fractions of the alleged overcharges.