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April 12. 2012 11:01PM

AG to Speaker: Statements in oil case 'untrue'

CONCORD — Attorney General Michael Delaney said Thursday that statements by House leadership on his request to hire outside counsel for claims against major oil companies “are simply untrue.”

Wednesday, House Speaker William O'Brien and House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt took Delaney to task for what they said was wasting the taxpayers' money to sue oil companies over price gouging.

Delaney asked the Legislative Fiscal Committee, which meets today, to hire an out-of-state law firm to represent about 25 states in bringing claims of unjust enrichment against major oil companies.

In his letter Thursday, Delaney wrote: ‘My office is not involved in, nor have we proposed becoming involved in, any lawsuits related to price fixing, price gouging, or the pricing of gasoline whatsoever.”

Instead, he said, the state is attempting to recover funds from the oil companies for using state Petroleum Fund Program money to pay for cleanups while also collecting insurance money for the same work.

Thursday, O'Brien called on Delaney to withdraw the request until he gives lawmakers more details about the suit.

“The fiscal item in question is uninformative and ambiguous and leads to a vastly different and limiting interpretation than he now suggests, while using language that has been used for other efforts to sue energy companies for price-fixing litigation,” O'Brien said. “This ambiguity was further confirmed by having his staff contact the Chairman of the Fiscal Committee and requesting that the committee ‘not ask questions' of the department on this item.”

Delaney said the companies claimed they lacked insurance coverage in order to use the state funds to clean up contaminated gas stations when they had insurance coverage.

“We believe the state paid millions of dollars to the companies for cleanup efforts based on misrepresentations about the availability of insurance,” Delaney wrote. “We allege the targeted major oil companies not only had insurance coverage, but specifically established ‘captive' insurance programs to provide coverage for contaminated sites.”

House Democratic leaders praised Delaney for attempting to recover the money from the big oil companies and accused their Republican counterparts of favoring big oil over the state's taxpayers.

“New Hampshire taxpayers shouldn't be forced to foot the bill while big oil companies rake in the bucks from their insurance companies,” said Senate Minority Leader Sylvia Larsen of Concord. “We support the Attorney General's efforts to protect New Hampshire consumers, and we hope that reasonable Republicans in the legislature will join us in putting consumers first.”

The Petroleum fund was established to provide “excess insurance” to clean up contamination at storage tank facilities such as gas stations and to clean up contaminated water supplies.

Petroleum importers and distributors pay a per-gallon fee into the fund. Other states have similar funds and others state are bringing suits against the oil companies for the same reason.

Delaney said Colorado recently filed a similar lawsuit, and he would like to use the same legal team for New Hampshire's.

“The Speaker's comments are based on the false premise that my office has alleged a price-fixing scheme by the oil companies. Those comments are incorrect,” Delaney writes. “The Speaker speculated that taxpayers will be harmed by the lawsuit. In fact the lawsuit is designed to recover state funds illegally obtained by the oil companies.”

If the suit is successful, the attorney general said, the money recovered from the major oil companies could potentially reduce the fee charged to local importers and distributors of petroleum for the cleanup programs, and make money available to local gas stations and property owners for site cleanup.

O'Brien and Bettencourt accused Delaney of having a partisan political agenda in bringing what they called frivolous lawsuit. Bettencourt also called for change in the Attorney General's office.

Corey R. Lewandowski, state director of Americans for Prosperity-New Hampshire, also criticized Delaney for bringing what he too said was a suit against price gouging.

House Minority Leader Terie Norelli of Portsmouth and Larsen noted Americans for Prosperity — which is reportedly funded by the Koch Brothers, who have significant oil interests, joined O'Brien and Bettencourt in their attack against Delaney.

The fiscal committee meets today at 10 a.m. in Rooms 210-211 of the Legislative Office Building.

******This story has been corrected. An earlier version incorrectly stated that House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt had called on Attorney General Michael Delaney to resign.******


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