Private meetings between Federal Energy Regulatory Commission officials and representatives of applicants in a controversial case were not improper and did not taint the regulatory process, according to a report by FERC's general counsel.

The meetings involved at least one member of the commission and several senior staff members, but they discussed procedural matters and general energy issues, not the merits of the proposed Iroquois Natural Gas Pipeline, general counsel William S. Scherman found.

FERC rules, like those of most courts and regulatory agencies, prohibit private, off-the-record conversations with either side of a dispute if they might influence the outcome.

In the Iroquois case, meetings held by FERC Commissioner Elizabeth Moler, chief pipeline regulator Kevin Madden and other FERC officials with senior representatives of the Iroquois consortium did not compromise the proceedings or provide a basis for disqualifying anyone from considering the Iroquois case, Scherman said.

Iroquois is a proposed 370-mile, $583 million pipeline that would transport Canadian natural gas from the St. Lawrence River to southern New England and Long Island. The applicants are 13 natural gas pipeline and distribution companies. TransCanada Pipelines Ltd. owns the biggest share, 29 percent.

The project has been strenuously opposed by conservationists and property owners along the route, by independent U.S. natural gas producers and by New England fuel oil dealers, who fear the loss of heating oil customers. FERC is expected to decide July 14 whether to approve it.

Early in June, one of the most determined opponents, Anne Marie Mueser, a property owner in Dutchess County, N.Y., obtained sign-in sheets from FERC headquarters indicating that meetings between regulators and applicants had taken place without notice to her or other intervenors in the case. She filed a motion challenging the validity of the Iroquois proceeding.

Under FERC rules, the commission is responsible for investigating itself. Chairman Martin Allday, promising that "the investigation is going to be run right," assigned the task to Scherman.

Scherman confirmed that Moler, Madden and other FERC officials met several times with Iroquois representatives, including Iroquois president Robert J. Reid, former senator Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) and Frederick Lowther, the consortium's Washington lawyer. Only the conversation in one meeting with Moler "could be interpreted as an argument for expedited approval of the pipeline project," Scherman said, but there is "no evidence" of prejudgment that would require her to recuse herself.

"This just confirms my suspicions, that the project was on the fast track to completion without considering any of our issues," Mueser said yesterday. "Scherman isn't the solution, he's part of the problem. I'm not finished."