The $600,000 question being kicked around town this week stems from what can only be described as a bizarre lawsuit filed by a former state nuclear-waste regulator against the owner of a Tooele County dump.

The question:Why would somebody who appears to have violated state ethics laws by very quietly making a big-money deal with a businessman working in an area he was supposed to be regulating file a public lawsuit against that very businessman for failing to pay up?

The answer:

Anybody's guess, since the plaintiff isn't talking about it and his attorney didn't return phone messages. But one can only surmise the response would be that the arrangement was on the up-and-up and therefore above reproach.

This remains to be seen.

Larry F. Anderson, former director of the state Bureau of Radiation Control, says openly in his suit that during his tenure at the bureau he had an unusual relationship with Khosrow Semnani, owner of En-vi-ro-care of Utah. The arrangement, as the now-retired Anderson describes it in his complaint, allowed him to act as a "consultant" on the dump in exchange for a $100,000 advance and 5 percent of all revenues.

All this while Anderson was presiding over state licensing and compliance procedures involving Envirocare.

A judge, a jury or a plea bargain may eventually indicate whether this was the state ethics-law violation it appears to be. Laws are on the books to prevent such practices.

Officials who now run the regulating agency reacted critically to news of the deal, which they said was unknown to them until Anderson filed his suit last month.

"Illegal" and "unacceptable" were the adjectives used by Dianne Nielsen, director of the Department of Environmental Quality (Nielsen took the post well after the Anderson/Semnani deal went down).

"If you came to me and tried to make an arrangement, there wouldn't be a discussion of any arrangement," added Anderson's successor, Bill Sinclair, director of the Division of Radiation Control. "It wouldn't be ethical."

Part of the reaction is rooted, no doubt, in fears that federal regulators - who delegate their authority to the state on such operations - will come in, open the books and start looking at whether the state has done the watchdog job it's expected to do over Envirocare.

Exactly what happened in the Semnani-Anderson deal is disputed, and an investigation under way by the Utah Attorney General's Office is supposed to get to the bottom of it.

This much is agreed to by both sides, however: Anderson got largesse from Semnani in the form of cash, gold coins and a Park City condominium. Though Anderson has not said publicly how much he received, Semnani said Monday it approached $600,000 - half of it in currency or gold, the rest in the guise of a $300,000 Park City condominium. The payout, according to court documents, occurred from 1987 to 1993, the years in which Anderson was the state's chief radioactive-waste control officer.

Semnani on Monday insisted the matter was a simple case of power abused.

"We were being extorted," he said. "We were in fear that if we didn't pay, our license application wouldn't be treated fairly."

"Bribery" - in addition to "extortion" - is the other term being bandied about.

Anderson in his complaint all but admits that the dump, which is now well-established, would have foundered if not for his help.

"Without the express involvement of the plaintiff, defendants wouldn't have been able to create such business operation," says his lawsuit.

Court records raise more questions than they answer, thanks in no small part to a near-total absence of documentation, and Anderson's complaint laments the lack of any written contract with his alleged partner.

"Defendant Semnani refused to execute such written agreement, not because there was no agreement between the parties, but for the express reason that he did not desire to have any paperwork which could later be held against him or his operation."

Perhaps, but it might've been held against Anderson as well.