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Paul Bloom, Energy Department Lawyer

Matt Schudel

The Department of Energy was created in August 1977 by President Jimmy Carter, and Paul Bloom joined its staff as a special counsel in December of that year. He spent only three years as a lawyer for the department, but he had an outsized influence.

Mr. Bloom, who died last month, was given the unenviable job of dragging money out of the country's major oil companies. He had been a natural resources lawyer in New Mexico before coming to Washington, and he wasn't expected to be able to accomplish much against the arrayed legal and financial might of Big Oil.

There were all sorts of complicated pricing regulations on the petroleum industry in the 1970s, and Mr. Bloom was charged with finding cases when the companies had overcharged their customers. Against all odds, Mr. Bloom and his staff of 450 lawyers and auditors, launched investigations of the country's 34 largest oil companies.

Soon enough, he began dragging money out of them, proving that one man can indeed make a difference in government policy. When he left office in January 1981, after the election of Ronald Reagan, the Reagan appointees threatened to prosecute Mr. Bloom because he had given $4 million in interest income to charities that gave money to help poor people with their heating bills.

With Reagan, the era of price regulation was over, and Mr. Bloom's special counsel office was allowed to wither away. Still, over the next few years, as a result of the investigations he launched, billions of dollars flowed back to the government and to wronged customers from the oil companies.

No one seems to remember this incident now, but it was a big deal at the time -- especially Mr. Bloom's grand farewell gesture. It's one of the pleasures of obituary writing to discover someone like Paul Bloom and to unearth such fascinating, if forgotten, episodes of history.

By Matt Schudel  |  November 7, 2009; 12:31 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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