After teetering for more than a year between bribery and extortion, federal prosecutors appear to have settled on the latter in their investigation of the Envirocare scandal.
The tipoff came Wednesday afternoon, when Envirocare owner Khosrow B. Semnani announced he had entered into a cooperation and plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office.The deal calls for Semnani to plead guilty to a misdemeanor tax charge, pay the maximum $100,000 fine and cooperate fully with prosecutors in their continuing investigation of Larry Anderson, the former director of the Utah Division of Radiation Control.
Anderson himself provoked the investigation with a 1996 civil lawsuit revealing a "consulting" arrangement that called for Semnani to pay him $5 million in fees beyond the $600,000 in real estate, coins and cash he had already received.
Anderson was heading the state regulatory agency during the decade that Semnani was establishing the Tooele County-based Envirocare as one of the largest low-level radioactive waste dumps in the nation.
"As I have previously stated, I believe I was the victim of extortion," Semnani said during a press conference in the office of his attorney, Rodney G. Snow.
Snow said the cooperation and plea agreement supported Semnani's view of the matter and cleared him of any taint of bribery. If someone makes an inappropriate payoff out of fear of economic harm or under demand of government authority, it's extortion, Snow said.
The misdemeanor charge filed Wednesday afternoon accuses Semnani of aiding and abetting "two Utah residents" - whom Snow identified as Larry and Carolee Anderson - in the filing of a false tax return in 1993. According to the complaint, the return failed to report a $40,000 payment from Semnani as income.
Snow said state sources have told him that Anderson never reported as income any of the property and cash - including a Park City condominium - that Semnani gave him.
While maintaining his client was a victim, Snow said Semnani recognizes that "the way in which the extortion was paid" violated tax law. Snow also said the government's investigation has concluded that Envirocare gained nothing from the payments to Anderson.
"No corners were cut; there was no impropriety with respect to the licensing of Envirocare," Snow said.
Although the document spelling out terms of the agreement hasn't been released, Snow says it doesn't guarantee his client will be spared jail time. "He has placed himself in harm's way," Snow said, noting the misdemeanor charge carries a possible one-year prison term.
The attorney said a simple case of extortion took on larger proportions because such incidents are rare in Utah and it involved a low-level radioactive waste facility.
Anderson, who lives in Mesquite, Nev., could not be reached for comment. The U.S. Attorney's Office has made no public statement on the cooperation and plea agreement beyond releasing a copy of the misdemeanor complaint against Semnani.
Semnani said he has cooperated with investigators from the outset and looks forward to continuing to do so and concluding the case. "I also look forward to the time when all my efforts can be put to future and more productive endeavors," he added.
As the investigation heated up in early 1997, Semnani stepped down as president of Envirocare as part of a consent decree to preserve the company's lucrative contracts with the U.S. Department of Energy. The 18-month term of that decree expires at the end of this year, and Wednesday's development could clear the way for Semnani to resume management of his company.
In a statement released by Envirocare, interim President Charles Judd said, "With the conclusion of the U.S. Attorney's investigation of Mr. Semnani and the state of Utah's proposed issuance of a new radioactive materials license to Envirocare, I am hopeful that anyone with questions about our company has been satisfied that we are operating in full compliance."