Orin E. Atkins; Tainted CEO Expanded Ashland Oil

Under Orin E. Atkins, Ashland grew from a regional to a national business. He also pleaded guilty to trying unsuccessfully to sell secrets to the National Iranian Oil Co. for millions of dollars.
Under Orin E. Atkins, Ashland grew from a regional to a national business. He also pleaded guilty to trying unsuccessfully to sell secrets to the National Iranian Oil Co. for millions of dollars. (1973 Associated Press Photo)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Orin E. Atkins, 82, who helped turn what is now Ashland Inc. into one of the nation's largest independent oil companies but whose 16-year tenure as chief executive was tarnished by his effort to sell confidential company documents to Iran, died March 23 at St. Paul University Hospital in Dallas. He had pneumonia.

Ashland Oil founder Paul G. Blazer once referred to Mr. Atkins as "one of the most capable, aggressive young lawyers" he knew, and in 1965, his 40-year-old protege took over the Kentucky-based refining company.

Mr. Atkins spent the next several years guiding Ashland's acquisitions of construction, mining and chemical businesses -- despite the unease of some board members toward the wide-scale expansion.

During Mr. Atkins's tenure, the company changed from a regional concern with $447 million in sales into a national giant with $9.6 billion in sales. Although Mr. Atkins helped turn Ashland into one of the largest U.S. companies, his career as CEO was marred by accusations of business and political improprieties.

In 1973, he and the company were fined for secretly contributing $633,000 in corporate funds to U.S. election campaigns. Mr. Atkins pleaded no contest and was fined $1,000; the company pleaded guilty and paid $30,000.

In the years after, Ashland and its subsidiaries faced a series of bid-rigging investigations on paving and construction jobs. Its Atlanta-based subsidiary, Ashland-Warren, paid a $6 million fine, reportedly one of the largest ever assessed against a U.S. corporation.

The most serious investigations into Mr. Atkins and other company officials focused on their actions during the energy crisis of the 1970s. They were accused of making questionable deals to secure new Middle Eastern oil -- chiefly from the Persian Gulf nation of Oman -- after the Iranian revolution in 1979, which installed a regime hostile to U.S. interests. Iran had previously been a chief source of crude oil to Ashland, providing 100,000 barrels a day.

Mr. Atkins was accused of making tens of millions of dollars of company investments, many involving an exchange of money through Swiss bank accounts, to influence the sultan of Oman's top advisers.

This drew the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits bribery of foreign officials. According to the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Atkins neither acknowledged nor denied misconduct but agreed never to violate the act.

About that time, Mr. Atkins was pressured to resign from the company and was given a lucrative consulting contract based in West Palm Beach, Fla. In 1988 he was arrested by federal agents on criminal charges of trying to sell Ashland secrets to the National Iranian Oil Co., which had sued Ashland to recover nonpayments in oil worth $283 million that dated to 1979. The company said it withheld payment for the 1979 shipment because of a U.S trade ban with the Iranians after the taking of U.S. hostages in Tehran.

According to documents from lawsuits, Mr. Atkins gained access to hundreds of internal Ashland memorandums, including some dealing with the company's legal strategies. He offered them to the Iranian oil company for tens of millions of dollars, but the sale apparently was unsuccessful.

Mr. Atkins pleaded guilty in 1989. He faced up to 10 years in jail and a $250,000 fine. But a U.S. district judge sentenced him in 1990 to two years' probation and 600 hours of community service because of his cooperation with prosecutors. The settlement also called for him to repay Ashland $2.25 million.

"I have no excuse for my actions other than I think anger or some resentment obviously short-circuited my brain," Mr. Atkins told the court.

Ashland, which remains a diversified global chemical company, agreed in 1989 to pay the National Iranian Oil Co. $325 million.

Orin Ellsworth Atkins was born June 6, 1924, in Pittsburgh and raised in Huntington, W.Va. He received a bachelor's degree from Marshall University and joined Ashland after graduating from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1950. He served in the Army in Europe during World War II and received two awards of the Purple Heart.

In later years, he served on the board of Tampimex, a European-based oil trading company, and headed Marshall's advisory board. He also had an interest in scuba diving and underwater photography.

His first wife, Kathryn Agee Atkins, died in 1989.

Survivors include his wife of 16 years, Candace Garner Atkins of Dallas; two sons from his first marriage, Randall Atkins of Huntington and Charles Atkins of Raleigh, N.C.; a brother; and five grandchildren.

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