WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats on Wednesday urged that oil company executives be summoned back to Capitol Hill to testify -- this time under oath -- about whether they participated in Vice President Dick Cheney's energy policy task force.
Democrats also said they wanted to ask more questions about the industry's record profits at a time of high energy prices.
But Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who chose not to swear in the executives at a hearing he presided over last week, said that forcing the witnesses to be sworn in would be "nothing but a photo op."
The latest partisan spat was sparked by Wednesday's Washington Post report that officials from several large oil firms met with Cheney's task force in 2001 while it was drafting the Bush administration's energy policy.
The five chief executives who testified at last week's Senate hearing said that their companies had not met with the task force or that they were unaware of any such meetings.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, that panel's top Democrat, called on the five CEOs to respond, in writing, to the "apparent inconsistencies" raised by the newspaper article, which cited a White House document as the source of its information.
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) called for a Justice Department investigation into whether the executives provided false testimony. And Lautenberg and seven other Democratic senators, including California's Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, asked GOP leaders to bring the executives back for another hearing.
The effort to keep the spotlight on the executives underscores the fact that oil profits and energy costs have become a hot political issue.
A Democrat-sponsored measure pending before the Senate would impose a windfall-profit tax on the oil industry; a vote on it could come today. The measure appears unlikely to pass.
The Cheney-led task force made several recommendations that were in energy legislation Congress passed this year. Critics said industry lobbyists influenced the White House recommendations.
The administration won a legal battle to keep details about task force meetings secret.
According to the Post article, officials from Exxon Mobil Corp., Conoco Inc. (before its merger with Phillips Petroleum Co.), Shell Oil Co. and BP America Inc. met with Cheney aides during the drafting of the administration's energy policy.
In their Senate testimony, the CEOs of Exxon Mobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips said their firms had not participated in the task force. Shell's president said his company had not participated "to my knowledge," and BP America's executive said he did not know if his firm had.
ConocoPhillips said in a statement Wednesday that its CEO, James J. Mulva, who was chairman and CEO of Phillips in 2001, was "correct in stating that no one from" Phillips participated in the task force. The statement said Mulva did not know whether any Conoco officials appeared at task force meetings.
A Chevron spokesman said company officials "did not participate on Vice President Cheney's energy task force, and the company did not attend energy task force meetings." But the spokesman added that "as a matter of course, Chevron's Washington office has had ongoing discussions" with officials in the administration and Congress on energy policy.
A Shell spokeswoman said company President John Hofmeister gave an "accurate and honest" statement that he was unaware of any participation by his firm in the task force. The spokeswoman said that although Shell officials meet with administration officials "as part of our normal business activities," she could not confirm whether company officials participated in "official task force meetings."
A spokesman for Exxon Mobil said CEO Lee R. Raymond "correctly confirmed" that company officials had not been part of task force meetings. The spokesman added, "Our absence from participation on the task force is not to be confused with a failure to make our views known" to the administration and others in Washington.
A BP spokesman declined to comment.
Assistant Minority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) suggested Wednesday on the Senate floor that Stevens chose not to swear in the executives "so they couldn't be held accountable if they didn't tell the truth." Stevens angrily accused Durbin of impugning his integrity and demanded an apology.
"I did not swear in witnesses who appeared before our committees because they're required to tell the truth" whether or not an oath is administered, Stevens responded. "To suggest that I did not administer an oath to these witnesses to help them lie to members of Congress is false and inexcusable ... and I expect an apology."
He did not receive one.
\o7Times staff writer Emma Vaughn contributed to this report.