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As gas prices soar, task force to explore energy fraud

With U.S. gasoline prices soaring, the Obama administration Thursday unveiled a working group of federal agencies to probe potential fraud in the energy markets.

Rising fuel prices are a persistent concern for the White House, which worries about their impact on the economy’s recovery and on voters’ wallets as President Obama runs for reelection.

The Justice Department announced the working group, which will include representatives from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Reserve Board, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as the Agriculture, Energy, Justice and Treasury departments.

“We will be vigilant in monitoring the oil and gas markets for any wrongdoing so that consumers can be confident they are not paying higher prices as a result of illegal activity,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement unveiling the effort.

Obama devoted considerable time to the subject of rising gasoline prices this week, seeking to reassure Americans that there was enough global oil supply and blaming soaring gasoline prices on speculators.

The average U.S. price of gasoline hit $3.84 a gallon last week, its highest since August 2008, as oil prices have soared above $100 a barrel. With pump prices above $4 a gallon in such cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, there is political pressure on Obama to act.

The group, which will be part of the administration’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, will focus on any manipulation of oil and gas prices, collusion, fraud, or other violations of state and federal laws, Holder said in a memo.

It will also examine investor practices, supply and demand factors, and the role of speculators and index traders in the oil futures markets, according to his memo sent to the task force members.

Holder said that he was acting on a March 11 request from Obama to look into rising energy prices and that during a subsequent meeting last month with task force members and state attorneys general they discussed pending inquiries in some states.

They also talked about “areas that require additional exploration, including whether there is any evidence of unlawful price manipulation at the supplier level or higher,” Holder said in the memorandum released by the Justice Department.


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