The president of Mobil Oil Corp., William P. Tavoulareas, may have given "false and misleading" statements under oath to federal investigators who questioned him in 1977 about his involvement in a shipping management firm operating Mobil ships and partially owned by his son, a House subcommittee chairman has charged.
Moveover, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), whose subcommittee staff has been investigating the Mobil president's role in the shipping firm, said in a Nov. 20 letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission that "it appears" that William Tavoulareas "misused corporate assets to . . . enrich his son."
Meanwhile, in a news release yesterday, Mobil attacked The Washington Post for an article yesterday describing the involvement of Mobil's president in setting up his son as a partner in Atlas Maritime Co. and thereafter participating in several key decisions that enhanced his son's position and ensured the firm's success.
Mobil characterized the article as "an old, old story which has been fully disclosed many times."
"The Post article has twisted with innuendo and inaccurate statements what is in fact an open, straight forward, well-known business relationship," Mobil said.
The statement did not deny that Mobil's president participated in decisions and actions detailed in the article.
Dingell's letter to the SEC was based on seeming contradictions between the sworn testimony of Mobil's president given in March 1977 and a statement to the Dingell subcommittee staff by a key witness, a former Exxon executive who was initially recruited by Mobil to set up the shipping management firm, Atlas.
Atlas manages Mobil crude oil tankers through an intermediary company partially owned by Mobil.
The subcommittee's witness, George D. Comnas, 66, said that Mobil's president:
Recruited Comnas to help set up Atlas.
Asked Comnas to accept 24-year-old Peter Tavoulareas as a partner with an equity interest.
Flew to Saudi Arabia twice in the summer and fall of 1974 to negotiate personally of behalf of Atlas with Saudi partners in the intermediary company.
Made sure that Atlas would get Mobil's business through the intermediary company.
Forced Comnas to resign by threatening to withdraw Mobil's business, and bought out Comnas' interest in Atlas with $90,000 in Mobil consulting fees.
It was after Comnas departed that Atlas was left in control of Peter Tavoulareas, who owns 45 percent of the firm, and one other employee.
Comnas' account, as told to the subcommittee investigators, conflicts on several points with the 60 pages of sworn testimony given by Mobil's president. A copy of the testimony was obtained by the Post.
In his 1977 testimony, Mobil's president was asked whether he was involved "directly or indirectly" with the events that led to his son's increasing his ownership position in Atlas when Comnas resigned.
Tavoulareas replied, "No,"
However, Comnas' statement says that Mobil's president traveled to London with another Mobil executive in April 1975 to meet with Comnas and propose that he resign.
Comnas quoted Mobil's president as saying, "You know that without Mobil's active participation, Atlas hasn't any possibility of profits."
At that point, Comnas told the subcommittee, Mobil's president offered him $90,000 in consulting fees over three years as a settlement for Comnas leaving Atlas.
A Mobil spokesman, in a statement to The Post last week, also acknowledged that, "Yes, Mr. Tavoulareas played a minor role . . . in the arrangements made when Comnas departed from Atlas . . . to the extent of assuring a settlement that was fair and equitable to both parties."
The clear inference drawn by Dingell was that Mobil's president improperly participated in an ownership change of a company that Mobil does not own. In his letter, Dingell said, "It . . . appears that William [Tavoulareas] misused corporate assent to buy out George Comnas and enrich his son."
In 1977, the SEC investigators never directly asked Mobile's president whether he personally urged that his son be made a partner in Atlas when it was formed in 1974.
In its statement to the Post last week, Mobil officials said that the elder Tavoulareas played no role in helping his son become a partner of Atlas.
However, Comnas' account to the subcommittee says that in April 1974 he received a telephone call from William and Peter Tavoulareas in which Mobil's president suggested that Peter join Atlas as a partner. Comnas said that he recognized that Mobil was his benefactor in the project and agreed to include Peter as an equity partner, though, Comnas said, Peter contributed no capital or operating expenses to start up Atlas.
Subsequently, Comnas told the subcommittee staff, he worried that Peter Tavoulareas' involvement might create a conflict of interest for Mobil and that he expressed this concern to Mobil's president.
On April 27, 1974, Comnas said he received a telephone call from Rawleigh Warner, Jr., Mobil's chairman. Comnas said Warner told him that the subject of Peter Tavoulareas' involvement in Atlas had been raised in a management meeting at Mobil and that those in attendance saw no problem with the arrangement.
After his son joined Atlas, Mobil's president said in his testimony, he divorced himself from all dealings the firm.
However, according to Comnas' statement, the elder Tavoulareas traveled to Saudi Arabia twice in the summer and fall of 1974 to negotiate personally with the Saudi partners in the intermediary company through which Mobil provided ships to Atlas. Comnas said that during these negotiating sessions Mobil's president effectively represented Atlas.
Based on Comnas' statement, Dingell said in his letter to the SEC that Mobil, the second-largest oil company, may have violated federal securities laws, "including those applying to failure to disclose material information to stockholders, conflicts of interest and the misappropriation of corporate assets."
In its denouncement of yesterday's Post article on the formation of Atlas and the Mobile president's involvement in his son's venture, Mobil discounted the financial benefits that have accrued to Atlas under its contract to manage Mobil ships.
"Far from being a 'lucrative' contract, the fact is that when the principal owner of Atlas [Comnas] resigned in 1975, at least two other senior ship company professionals turned down the opportunity to take over his interests because they believed it was not sufficiently rewarding," Mobil said.
The company also said in its four-page statement that, "We are amazed at the attention The Post is focusing on Mobil . . . It is clear that in a situation involving a member of the immediate family or senior officials, Mobil has required prior approval, made full disclosure of all circumstances and has required regular status reports." CAPTION: Picture, Rep. JOHN D. DINGELL . . . alleges misuse of funds