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The dissident shareholder who unsuccessfully tried to put a lid on the pay of National Fuel Gas Co.'s top executives earlier this year is launching a new bid to get the Buffalo-based natural gas company to hire more minorities.

The new shareholder proposal was submitted Wednesday by Curtis W. Lee, a former National Fuel executive who was fired in January after forcing a shareholder vote on a measure that would have put a cap on some of the company's stock option and incentive pay programs for top executives.

Lee's new proposal, which would be voted on by National Fuel shareholders at its annual meeting in February 2000, calls for the company to create an independent committee whose members do not work for the company to develop a plan to increase minority hiring.

Lee said about 3 percent of National Fuel's full-time work force is non-white, compared with a customer base in Western New York and northwestern Pennsylvania that is at least 10 percent non-white.

"I've seen no material progress in the last 15 years in minority employment," said Lee, who described National Fuel's minority hiring record as "abysmal" and "horrible."

"I don't see any other way of getting the company to improve its record of minority hiring," Lee said.

Julie A. Coppolla, a National Fuel spokeswoman, disputed Lee's charges, calling it an "extreme distortion" to compare the makeup of a company's employee base with the general population, rather than with the available work force in a particular area.

"We are committed to affirmative action," she said.

The company's employee base within its utility group in Western New York and northwestern Pennsylvania is more than 9 percent minority, she said. In comparison, National Fuel believes the general population with the utility service area is 8.5 percent to 9 percent minority, Ms. Coppolla said.

It also is possible that National Fuel could challenge Lee's proposal with the Securities and Exchange Commission in a bid to revise its wording or have it barred from consideration at the annual meeting altogether.

Ms. Coppolla declined to say what action National Fuel plans to take, saying only that the company is "carefully examining" the proposal.

When asked in an interview if the latest shareholder proposal is an attempt to cause trouble for National Fuel, Lee, who is locked in a legal battle with National Fuel over his dismissal and other issues, said:

"Happy people don't submit shareholder proposals. If you think everything is going well, you don't complain. It wasn't my goal in life to be a pain in the neck."

Lee said he decided to focus on the company's minority hiring record after shareholders rejected his executive pay proposal by a wide margin.

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