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The former head of one of America's biggest nuclear power construction programs admitted Wednesday that he illegally sent money to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.
Masoud Bajestani, the Iranian-born nuclear engineer who previously served as a TVA vice president in charge of finishing the Unit 2 reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, agreed to forfeit the $600,000 authorities said he illegally sent to Iran from 2008 to 2010. Bajestani now faces up to five years in prison for violating U.S. sanctions imposed after Iran refused to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
Bajestani pleaded guilty Wednesday to a single count of conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and two counts of filing false income tax returns. He was arrested in December 2012 when he returned from a visit to Iran and was subsequently charged with 11 counts of illegal money shipments and tax payments. Bajestani previously had pleaded not guilty to the charges, which could have cost him penalties of up to $1.25 million and up to 20 years in prison.
Bajestani, who once owned a $330,000 house in Apison where he lived with his second wife, was in charge of TVA's initial $2.5 billion completion project for the Unit 2 reactor at TVA's Watts Bar Nuclear Plant. The 58-year-old vice president was fired in 2011 for lying about a financial hardship he claimed to get an early withdrawal of $1.5 million from his TVA deferred compensation account.
After his firing, TVA determined it needed another two to three years and up to $2 billion more than what was originally budgeted to finish the second reactor at Watts Bar.
U.S. Attorney William Killian said that between February 2008 and May 2010, Bajestani conspired with an Iran-based co-conspirator to invest in Iran in violation of U.S. law. In a statement released Wednesday night, Killian said Bajestani used an informal value transfer system known as "hawala" to transfer money to Iran. Bajestani also falsely reported on his income tax returns that he did not have an interest in a foreign bank account, Killian said.
Knoxville attorney Donald Bosch, who represents Bajestani, said the decision to plead guilty "was very difficult" for the former TVA executive, particularly since the money he sent to Iran was used to buy housing and transportation for his wife and to help his elderly parents in Iran.
"He did a lot of good work for TVA and is a proud American citizen who looks forward to putting closure on this case in January," Bosch said. "The money that was sent to Iran was for personal use to support his family. There was nothing nefarious about these money shipments."
But federal prosecutors said the money transfers violated U.S. sanctions with Iran and said Bajestani failed to report the income from his foreign holdings.
Bajestani will be sentenced in January in federal court in Knoxville. He could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
Bajestani, who moved to the United States from Iran in 1975, holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Iran. At TVA, he rose to one of the utility's top jobs as site vice president in charge of completing Watts Bar Unit 2, which at the time was the only major nuclear plant construction project in America.
Although he long denied any wrongdoing, Bajestani said in a 2010 divorce proceeding that he requested an early withdrawal from his TVA retirement account because he wanted to invest where his returns would be greater in Iran's capital city. Bajestani divorced his Iranian-born wife of seven years in 2010.
"The dollar was losing its value, and I had this opportunity that I discussed with [my wife] to invest some money outside the U.S. and specifically buy some property back in Tehran, Iran," he testified in his divorce."So I decided to withdraw that money and invest it outside the U.S."
Killian said investing money is Iran is illegal under international sanctions the United States and the United Nations have adopted in response to Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 757-6340.