Who is Khosrow Semnani?
It depends who you ask.
He's either the ruthless owner of the big, bad radioactive waste disposal giant called Envirocare who silences his critics with fear and lawsuits and woos politicians with financial contributions and back-room deals, including one with a state official that got him in trouble with the law.
Or he's the benevolent, charitable entrepreneur, doting father and Iranian immigrant who began life in America as a janitor and rose to become a multimillionaire.
Or he's some combination of both.
Maybe you've seen his odd name in the news again lately. Semnani "Koz" to acquaintances has been at the heart of Initiative 1, which was defeated at Tuesday's polls. If successful, it would have slapped a huge tax increase on his company, Envirocare, which disposes of low-level radioactive waste in the clay of Utah's west desert.
The initiative's proponents said Semnani isn't paying enough in taxes for using the west desert as a dumping ground. Semnani and others who opposed Initiative 1 say it would have driven Envirocare out of business and so Utahns would have lost the taxes they're already receiving from his company approximately $5 million annually to Tooele County and an unknown amount in income tax.
Whichever side of the issue you might have been on, one thing about Envirocare's founder can't be argued.Without question, he is a prime example of a classic success story.
'I knew the science'
Semnani, a trim 55-year-old with smooth Ricardo Montalban charm, arrived at the Salt Lake bus station from Iran 33 years ago with only a few bucks in his pocket. Today he is, well, rich, having earned a fortune disposing of America's radioactive garbage.
Semnani has turned America's waste into a gold mine. No one is certain what his net worth is, but one former Envirocare executive says it is easily more than $100 million. Envirocare says it has averaged annual gross revenues of $121 million the past three years. Who knows what Semnani's cut of that is, but it can't be a bad living for a man who arrived here virtually penniless.
Khosrow Semnani his first name is Persian, meaning "king" grew up in Iran. His father was a farmer, contractor and commercial icemaker. The fourth of seven children, Semnani traveled to England in 1966 and attended two years of school while working as a waiter and shoe salesman.
Hoping to attend a U.S. university, he got as far as Montreal and then called a brother in Iran to say he needed money. His brother told him there was an Iranian professor at Brigham Young University in Utah who would loan him money. Semnani and his German fiance arrived in Salt Lake City late in the summer of 1969 only to learn the BYU professor was out of town for several months on sabbatical.
Semnani had $47 in his pocket and didn't know a soul in town. He rented a downtown apartment and found a job in the want ads, mowing lawns and painting houses for a real estate firm. Too late to attend the University of Utah, he tried to enroll at Westminster College, but couldn't pay the $500 tuition. He talked the school into accepting a payment plan, then found a job as a janitor on the student center bulletin board.
He studied physics and chemistry, and in his spare time he mopped floors in Carlson Hall for $1.25 an hour, painted houses for $15 a room and mowed lawns at $15 per job. He completed his formal education by earning a master's degree in engineering administration at the University of Utah.
Semnani went to work for Kennecott as a research chemist for seven years until he was laid off. He worked for Thatcher Chemical for a year, then took a managerial position with Sperry-Univac. His expertise: electrochemistry as it relates to metal refining.
"When you work with the electro refining business, you deal with waste contamination and impurities," he explains.
That experience would serve him well when the EPA in the 1970s established new guidelines for the disposal of hazardous wastes. One of Sperry-Univac's engineers wondered aloud how, under the new regulations, the company would dispose of its waste.
Says Semnani, "I thought, why can't we do it ourselves? I can recover these metals from the waste and sell them and dispose of the hazardous waste. I knew the science."
Semnani, who was making a modest $27,000 a year at the time, talked a banker into giving him a loan and combined it with his life's savings to buy a misnamed piece of property known as Grassy Mountain in the west desert. To save money, he dug trenches on the site with a hand shovel.Lacking capital for further improvements, he sold the property to the government a year later, in 1981. Seven years later, when the government was finished disposing of the infamous Vitro uranium tailings at the so-called Clive facility, Semnani used the proceeds from the sale of the Grassy Mountain facility to buy Clive 640 acres in all and opened Envirocare.
'I made a mistake'
Today Envirocare is one of only three private companies in the United States that disposes of low-level radioactive waste. (There are also several government facilities.)
"He has been very successful at coming up with ideas before anyone else and then having the smarts to push it through," says Charles Judd, former Envirocare CEO. "Everyone had tried to get into the private waste business, but nobody had done it. He found a way to get into it. Once he did, a lot of people tried to get in."
The combination of radioactive waste hysteria, the cutthroat nuclear waste business, his cozy relationship with legislators and his tough and perhaps questionable business dealings, makes Semnani a big target. He has a long list of enemies, but good luck trying to find one who will discuss him on the record.
Envirocare says rival companies have spread defamatory lies about Semnani and his company in an effort to derail the business.
"There was one that accused me of helping Saddam Hussein and sending radioactive material to make bombs," Semnani said. "Another said I was sleeping with government employees. They sent the information to the FBI and to the public."
Semnani said he sued for defamation, settled out of court and received a cash settlement.
Semnani's critics accuse him of filing so-called SLAPP suits an acronym for "strategic lawsuits against public participation" which are designed to silence critics who, even if what they say is true, lack the funds to go to trial against a large corporation.
This is why Doug Foxley and Frank Pignanelli proponents of Initiative 1 refused to discuss Semnani on the record. "Doug and I have both received letters saying he would sue," says Pignanelli. "If you say anything, he'll sue."
Semnani acknowledges he has made his share of mistakes. The most famous one was the Larry Anderson debacle.
Anderson, who was director of the state Bureau of Radiation Control, sued Semnani in 1996, claiming he was owed millions of dollars for helping him start Envirocare.
Semnani countersued, claiming it was extortion and, by the way, he had already paid Anderson $600,000 worth of cash, gold coins and real estate.
An investigation showed Anderson signed off on 11 regulatory exemptions that allowed Envirocare to accept more types of waste and helped pave the way for licenses and permits. The state called it a conflict of interest.
Semnani pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor tax charge (for failing to report his gifts to Anderson) in exchange for his testimony against Anderson. Anderson was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for income tax evasion charges but was acquitted of charges that he used a government position to extort money.
In the aftermath, Semnani and Envirocare eventually settled out of court with three rival companies that claimed Semnani's dealings with Anderson locked them out of the competition. Semnani was required by the U.S. Department of Energy in 1997 to step down as president of Envirocare and was not allowed to exercise managerial control over the company until the spring of 2000."I made a mistake by not turning (Anderson) in," says Semnani. "Anderson was director of the Bureau of Radiation Control. If I had turned him in, he would deny the charges (of extortion) and then deny my application (for Envirocare). And I already owned this property (Clive), which was contaminated from Vitro tailings. I would've been stuck with it. Then it's a liability. I would've had to pay to clean it up. That was primarily the fear I had."
'Highly . . . controversial'
Since then, controversy has continued to dog Semnani. He is criticized for his contributions to politicians (fifth highest in the state). Almost all of the donations, he says, were solicited by politicians or lobbyists.
"Our business is highly regulated and controversial," he says. "We have lobbyists, and they recommend (donations)."
But some believe he goes too far in courting legislators and industry regulators. Semnani has befriended many powerful people. In 1993 he co-signed on a $15,000 loan to Preston Truman, a member of the state Board of Radiation Control who was representing environmental interests. Truman and Semnani served on the board together. Semnani also provided substantial loans to former Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter and former senator Steve Rees, who served as chairman of the Senate Health Committee, although both loans were made after they were out of office and were repaid with interest.
Despite Initiative 1's failure, the hard times aren't over for Semnani. Last January, Judd left Envirocare and sued Semnani, claiming he owed him money. Judd's suit also includes a long list of accusations against Envirocare and Semnani among them, bribing public officials, secret deals, doctoring company books, etc. Envirocare lawyers deny the accusations, but again the company and its owner are headed for a public fight.
"If you are Semnani's friend, he will do almost anything for you," said Judd in a prepared statement for the Deseret News. "If he views you as an enemy, it is a totally different ballgame."
Judd is being represented by Jones, Waldo, Holbrook and McDonough the same firm that pushed Initiative 1. Foxley is a member of that firm.Many observers find all of the above curious. Even Judd, who is no friend of Semnani's, believes the initiative was the product of an old feud between Foxley and Semnani. According to Judd, Foxley made several attempts to get into the waste business that were thwarted by Semnani.
'The miracle of America'
Given his wealth, one wonders why Semnani bothers with the aggravation, but he admits the company is "his baby."
"Even now, I can't retire," he says. "I'm like a bicycle. If I stop, I fall."
"He loves to work," says his wife, Ghazaleh. "If it weren't for the kids, I think he would be at the office all the time."
Semnani, who divorced his first wife in 1976 after seven years of marriage, first met Ghazaleh during their teen years in Iran, but they didn't meet again until October 1982. Three months later, they married.
Semnani and Ghazaleh Americanized pronunciation: Gazelle (Semnani says it "Ja-zell") have three children: Taymour, 18; Rodmehr, 8; and Jahangere, 5.
"I've never seen anyone who loves his kids the way he does," says Ghazaleh. "He's almost obsessed with them."
Besides kids, Semnani, who lives in a four-bedroom house in Holladay, has other passions. Ask him how many cars he owns, he pauses and counts on his fingers. Six, he says.
He's got a '91 Mercedes in the garage, but that's where it usually stays. He prefers to drive a large, extended-cab pickup with a stick shift.
Semnani also favors expensive suits and, especially, ties and shoes, and he has a vast, expensive home library, stocked with books on Persian and religious history and languages. He likes to spend his mornings poring over his books.
Semnani reveres his grandmother and subscribes to her philosophy of taking risks and working hard. He attends the mosque on Friday, and he has visited Mecca five times, but doesn't consider himself a particularly devout Muslim. He is effusive in his praise of America.
"This is the miracle of America," he says. "If you want it, it's there. Truly, truly, truly, I believe it. I tell my oldest son that. Where else could a kid with $47 in his pocket wind up owning a company?"
Those close to Semnani say he is passionate and sincere about using his fortune to help others. He is the sole financial supporter of the Semnani Foundation, which gives away $1 million annually to charitable causes.
"When I came on board, he told me, 'Don't use this to promote me or my business,' " says John Pingree, foundation executive director. "He told me to give the money anonymously. Most of the charities are not allowed to reveal the source of the money. It's part of his religion to give without doing it for recognition."Comment on this story
"He does other things for people, too," says one employee. "I cannot count how many times he's come in and given me the name and address of someone who needs help. He'll say, 'This is a family that is struggling. Their car just broke down. Buy them a van, and if they find out who bought it, you're fired.' Or he'll say, 'Here's a family three months behind in their rent. Make sure they're current.' "
Semnani hopes to restore democracy to his homeland and is working with U.S. legislators to do it. He rues the day Islamic extremists took over Iran."I want the miracle of America to happen somewhere else," he says. "It will not happen overnight. I owe everything I have to this system that was created 200 years ago. Nowhere else in the world could I have done what I have done here."