Representatives of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. yesterday accused Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. of inciting public fears of Japanese control of Yosemite National Park in order to "intimidate and coerce" the company into donating park tourist facilities valued at more than $100 million.

Responding to Lujan's expression of concern Monday over "the impression that the Japanese were buying up the whole United States," former Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) and former Democratic Party chairman Robert S. Strauss charged the interior secretary with "attempting to frighten the public into believing that an American national treasure will be under the control of a foreign corporation."

As part of its $7.5 billion purchase of the American entertainment giant MCA Inc., Matsushita acquired Yosemite Park and Curry Co., an MCA subsidiary that operates hotels, grocery stores, campgrounds and restaurants in the 1,170 square-mile park in California's Sierra Nevada.

The acquisition of concessions inside the 100-year-old natural landmark has proved ticklish for Matsushita, which is sensitive to concerns about the transfer of U.S. cultural assets to foreign owners.

To ease those fears, company representatives have said they will put Curry Co. in escrow for 12 months until a U.S. buyer can be found. In the meantime, Curry Co. profits would be donated to the National Park Foundation, a private, nonprofit group that channels money to the parks.

But Lujan has continued to press the company to donate Curry Co.'s property to the National Park Service, which is part of Interior. Lujan has noted in the past that Curry Co. operates under especially favorable contract terms with the government, and a spokesman reiterated that view yesterday.

"If Matsushita's MCA subsidiary wants to defend the fact that on every $100 of revenue they return to the U.S. taxpayer barely enough to buy a cup of coffee, and at the same time continue to advocate foreign ownership in the national parks, it surely is within their purview," said Steven Goldstein, Interior's chief spokesman.

"But as the chief steward of our nation's public lands, Secretary Lujan has a higher goal: preserving our national treasures," Goldstein said.

Goldstein reiterated the department's intent to declare the company in breach of its Park Service contract because it failed to get department approval for the change in ownership. He said Lujan remained skeptical of the escrow arrangement because there was no guarantee that a suitable American buyer would be found.

Baker and Strauss, hired to help smooth the Matsushita deal, noted in their letter that Interior initially endorsed the escrow proposal, thanking the Japanese firm in a Nov. 26 news release "for working so hard to find a mechanism whereby the interest of our great National Park will be served."

The letter to Lujan suggested that his more recent statements "are obviously designed to achieve a highly questionable purpose: By attempting to frighten the public into believing that an American national treasure will be under the control of a foreign corporation, you are trying to intimidate and coerce a major American corporation into giving the government an asset worth well over $100 million."

On one occasion last month, according to the letter, a private investment banker representing the Park Service went so far as to suggest that Interior "might attempt to halt the entire transaction over the Yosemite issue." The banker also threatened to ask the Treasury Department to contact Japan's Ministry of Finance "to express concern about the Yosemite matter," the letter said.

Goldstein said Lujan had no knowledge of any threats and "wouldn't accept that kind of talk."

Baker and Strauss said "it is now clear" that the reason Interior did not approve the escrow arrangement before Matsushita completed the transaction Saturday was to place additional "pressure on MCA to donate {Curry Co.} to the government."

"With the escrow plan in effect, no one could sensibly argue that 'the Japanese were in control of Yosemite.' It is ironic that you have launched a massive press campaign to point out the dangers of foreign control of the Yosemite concession while actually blocking the very mechanism designed to prevent this from occurring," the letter said.

Lujan sees it differently. "The secretary's job is to try to get the best deal possible for the American people," Goldstein said.