The Justice Department yesterday urged adoption of sentencing guidelines for corporations convicted of crimes that would force judges to impose fines based on the seriousness of the offense.

But the department shied away from a proposal it had earlier advanced under which a company involved in a massive fraud could be fined twice its gain or twice the loss to its victims.

The department acted after receiving an inquiry from the White House, which had been contacted by business groups expressing concern over stiff fines.

A February letter by then-Deputy Attorney General Donald B. Ayer endorsing the double-fine proposal had been sent without the permission of Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, the department said. The dispute contributed to Ayer's resignation in May.

"The system we are advocating will result in stiff corporate sanctions," Deputy Assistant Attorney General Paul L. Maloney told reporters. "We support a system of imposing fines that captures the seriousness of the offense as measured by the {sentencing} commission's existing ranking of offenses" in the guidelines for individuals, Thornburgh said in a letter to the U.S. Sentencing Commission that was released by the department.

"We believe that an offense-level approach, rather than an approach based on gain or loss, accomplishes this purpose," Thornburgh said.

The seriousness of the offense, and therefore the size of the fine, would be determined by a number of factors, including whether top officials were involved in the crime or whether the company had a history of similar misconduct. Bribery or threats to national security also could lead to higher fines, the department said.