Sunday, March 11, 2001

Lexington businessman fined $2 million for obstruction

The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON — A former University of Kentucky professor has pleaded guilty to obstructing a federal audit on bills his company had submitted for cleaning up hazardous waste sites.

        Pritam Sabharwal will pay the government $2 million and be incarcerated for six months.

        Mr. Sabharwal, a former biology professor, pleaded guilty in federal court in Lexington on Friday. In return, the U.S. attorney's office agreed to drop previously filed charges of racketeering, mail fraud and wire fraud against him and five others, including his wife and sons.

        However, no charges will be dropped until Mr. Sabharwal pays the $2 million fine on the obstruction charge and another fine, now totaling $950,000 with interest, that he failed to pay in a 1993 North Carolina bribery case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor said.

        “It is a good solution for him,” said Mr. Sabharwal's attorney, Jack Smith. “This is one way that he can get on with his life and get all the charges dismissed against his wife, his sons and other relatives.”

        When Mr. Sabharwal and his relatives were indicted in May 2000, the charges were far more serious. The indictment alleged that the Sabharwals set up several separate companies to get government contracts and failed to disclose their ties to each other, thus allowing the family to improperly get contracts worth more than $150 million under the Small Business Administration's minority preference program.

        Under that program, “disadvantaged” businesses are eligible for preference for several years, then “graduate” based on the assumption that their favored status gave them a strong enough start that they could compete on the open market, according to the Department of Defense's Office of the Inspector General, which participated in the Sabharwal investigation.

        The plea came quickly on the heels of Mr. Sabharwal's return this week to the United States from India, where he had been since he was indicted in May.

        Prosecutors at one point considered having him extradited but decided not to because it would have been exorbitantly expensive and time-consuming.

        Had he not pleaded, the cost of trying Mr. Sabharwal and his associates would have been considerable on all sides; the trial was expected to take three months.

        Mr. Sabharwal's wife, Jean Sabharwal, is the director of family services for the city of Lexington. She remained on the job throughout the legal ordeal.

        Mr. Sabharwal is asking that he be put under house arrest or some other less onerous form of confinement when he is sentenced Aug. 3.

        In pleading to the obstruction charge, Mr. Sabharwal agreed that he had intentionally thwarted EPA auditors between 1993 and 1995, when he concealed documents and lied about bills his company, Environmental Health Research and Testing of Lexington, had submitted.

        Mr. Smith said that Mr. Sabharwal does not have the cash to pay the $3 million in fines he has agreed to pay. “He'll have to sell some assets,” Mr. Smith said.

        According to property records in Kentucky and California, Mr. Sabharwal owns properties with a combined valued of more than $4.5 million.


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