Former head of TVA's Watts Bar project arrested

Former head of TVA's Watts Bar project arrested

February 5th, 2013 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

The cooling towers of the TVA Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, Tenn.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Masoud Bajestani

Masoud Bajestani

A former Tennessee Valley Authority vice president was charged Monday with illegally trying to ship money to his native Iran after he lied to TVA about why he needed the money.

Masoud Bajestani, the 57-year-old Iranian-born engineer who once headed one of America's biggest nuclear power construction projects, was arrested Sunday at the Atlanta airport after landing on a flight from Dubai.

He appeared in federal court Monday and pleaded not guilty to four felony charges made against him in December by a federal grand jury in Knoxville.

Bajestani, who owns a $330,000 home in Apison, was in charge of TVA's $2.5 billion completion project for the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant Unit 2 until he was fired two years ago.

In December, a federal grand jury in Knoxville indicted Bajestani on charges that he conspired with others to invest $600,000 in Iranian businesses in violation of America's sanctions against Iran.

The indictment said Bajestani lied to TVA to claim a financial hardship for an early withdrawal of $1.5 million from his deferred compensation account when he was employed as a TVA vice president paid more than $600,000 a year. TVA terminated Bajestani in January 2011 when the utility determined he had falsely filed a financial hardship claim for early withdrawal from his deferred compensation account.

During a court hearing Monday, U.S. attorneys made a motion before U.S. Magistrate Judge Clifford Shirley Jr. that Bajestani be detained until a hearing in Knoxville on Wednesday.

In a statement released by his office in Knoxville on Monday night, U.S. Attorney Bill Killian said Bajestani faces maximum penalties of up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine for violating the International Emergency Powers Act. For making false statements to TVA to draw down his retirement account early, he faces up to five years of prison and a $250,000 fine, if convicted.

Bajestani moved to the United States from Iran in 1975 and holds dual citizenship. At TVA, he rose to one of the utility's top nuclear jobs as site vice president in charge of completion of the unfinished second reactor at the Watts Bar plant near Spring City, Tenn.

Bajestani was paid $619,000 in his final full year at TVA.

Although he denied any illegal activity, Bajestani said in a divorce proceeding three years ago that he made an early hardship withdraw from his retirement fund because he wanted to invest money in Iran, where the return would be greater. An appellate court in 2010 ruled that Bajestani sent $600,000 to his brother-in-law in Iran. The transfers were made through a Canadian bank around the time that Bajestani's second wife, Maryam Ghorashi-Bajestani, sued him for divorce.

In the 2010 divorce proceeding, Bajestani testified that he wanted to invest money outside of the U.S. to earn a better return.

"The dollar was losing its value, and I had this opportunity to invest some money outside the U.S. and specifically buy some property back in Tehran, Iran," he said in the divorce case.

Killian said investing money in Iran is illegal under the international sanctions the United States has adopted in response to Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program.