Rep. Merrill Cook's lawyers are seeking a court order to prevent misuse of names of his 1996 campaign contributors.

A former Cook political consultant suing him on claims of unpaid services says that the legal maneuver is an attempt to hide illegal campaign contributions.Cook denies the allegation.

The confidentiality request is part of the first-term Republican's defense against a suit filed in July 1997 by R.T. Nielson Co., the political consulting firm Cook hired to run his 1996 campaign.

Third District Judge Sandra Peuler has not yet decided whether to issue an order that Cook's lawyers say would prevent the release of "hard-earned information" and guard against "invasion of the contributors' pri-va-cy."

The Nielson firm's lawyers said in court papers filed last week that Cook may have filed inaccurate campaign-finance reports and is trying to hide illegal 1994 and 1996 campaign donations from his explosives manufacturing company, Cook Slurry.

The multimillionaire Cook, a perennial candidate, spent $1 million, including $866,000 of his own money, to win his election to Congress two years ago. It was his first win in seven tries for elective office.

Nielson claims his firm is owed about $200,000 as part of an oral agreement, but Cook contends there was no oral agreement and that he already paid Nielson $229,000 under a written agreement and should get back $5,000 of that.

Cook said the firm's president, Ron Nielson, is trying to take advantage of Cook's re-election battle this year against Democrat Lily Eskelsen.

"His case is going nowhere, which is why he's doing this now to try to embarrass us in the middle of a campaign," Cook said.

Nielson did not respond to interview requests.

Federal candidates are required by law to disclose the names of contributors who give more than $200 in a calendar year. The law also prohibits candidates from soliciting money by using information about contributors obtained from others' Federal Election Commission reports.

The congressman's legal team worries that without a protective order, Nielson's firm could wiggle around the law and use Cook's contributor lists, since they would be obtained not directly from the FEC but through the pretrial information-gathering process known as discovery.

Craig Coburn, a lawyer for the Nielson firm, said the charges of possible campaign-finance violations were based on testimony from Avis Lewis, Cook's 1996 campaign treasurer.

During a May deposition, according to Coburn, Lewis said she "agreed to be the campaign treasurer in exchange for Cook Slurry's giving her a raise." But in a June deposition, Coburn said, Lewis "recanted" and said serving as treasurer was a volunteer position.

If Lewis were paid by Cook Slurry to serve as campaign treasurer, the arrangement might have represented an illegal contribution to Cook's 1996 campaign by Cook Slurry.

Neither side in the dispute would publicly release Lewis' depositions.