Jonathan Shokrian, an SMU Alum/Hipster Underwear Salesman, Allegedly Exposed Day Laborers to Asbestos
If you've ever felt the urge to buy a single pair of fancy underpants for $16 from a bunch of bros with cool Facebook pictures, then you may have heard of Jonathan Shokrian. In the tech and fashion press, he's known as the CEO of a very hip underwear website called MeUndies.com.
"We're never going to be Calvin Klein," Shokrian told The New York Times last May. "This is like American Apparel, but more tasteful."
Here's what's not tasteful: The Environmental Protection Agency says that Shokrian exposed day laborers to toxic asbestos when he was a student at SMU, working for his dad's construction company and trying to save money on asbestos removal.
Shokrian was just sentenced to a year in prison and a $25,000 fine for violating the Clean Air Act. He pleaded guilty
to the charges to one count of failure to notify under the act.
Shokrian passed along our questions about the charges to an attorney, Stephen L. Joseph, who says that "this story is not that simple." Joseph promised to send a statement explaining the real story as of 10 a.m., though we still don't have it. (
We'll add an update when and if that arrives See the update below).
At the time of the contamination, Shokrian was working for a property company called Califco that's run by his dad. He worked in Irving as the company's regional director while also juggling being a student at SMU.
Most of Califco's properties are near Beverly Hills, where the company is based, but they have a few notable properties in Dallas. One of those is the high-end 3200 Thomas townhome complex in Uptown, of which Shokrian oversaw the construction.
"The construction costs were just skyrocketing," Shokrian prophetically griped to the Dallas Business Journal in 2006.
A few years later, Shokrian went to work at the Crest Plaza Shopping Center in Dallas. The building was contaminated with asbestos, as many old buildings are, and he hired a specialized contractor to remove it, according to the government's complaint. So far, so good.
But later that year, Shokrian decided to get asbestos removed from a different building, the abandoned Fazio's department store in the Plymouth Park Shopping Center. And this time, there would be no specialized asbestos contractor.
Instead, he hired two day laborers. To be fair, he did provide the day laborers with some masks, respirators and other tools, but the masks "were not adequate to protect them from asbestos fiber," the government's complaint says. The feds also charge that Shokrian failed to tell other tenants in the building or the workers themselves that they were unleashing a known carcinogen in the air.
Starting in November 2008, the feds say, Shokrian had laborers use floor grinders and hand tools to remove the asbestos from the floor tiles. They then dumped the asbestos into a bin to go to a city landfill, according to the complaint. The gloriously low-budget asbestos renovation came to a halt in February 2009, when, allegedly under Shokrian's supervision, the day laborers poured large amounts of gasoline over the contaminated floor tiles.
Read on for the Irving Fire Department report.
Screenshot of Shokrian's website
On February 27, the Irving Fire Department responded to a call about overwhelming gasoline fumes in the air. The fumes were so concentrated that the firefighters ordered an evacuation of the building and part of a nearby neighborhood. That's how the U.S. Attorney's office got involved and decided to charge Shokrian with violations of the Clean Air Act.
Asbestos, a fiber that was commonly used in construction and all sorts of other products until the 1980s, becomes dangerous when people do stuff that breaks up its fibers and launches them into the air, like tearing down old buildings. Researchers say that asbestos exposure is the main cause of mesothelioma, a form of cancer that was rare until the use of asbestos exploded in the industrial age. It usually takes repeated exposure to develop the cancer, and the workers don't yet have it.
"Nothing has happened to the workers per se, although the effects from asbestos can take years to manifest as health problems," explains U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Kathy Colvin via email.
Shokrian's dad, Elias, also paid $500,000 on behalf of Califco for the Clean Air Act violations. "We are not making any comments about anything, OK?," he said when reached by telephone at the Califco headquarters.
Records show that the younger Shokrian did eventually hire a more legit-looking company to remove the asbestos from the building. In 2010, a company called AMX Environmental said they performed the removal and then sent Califco a $10,000 invoice. Yet as of just a few months ago, in November, the company said they still hadn't been paid for those services and filed a lawsuit against Califco in civil court.
Meanwhile, people interested in ordering specialty underwear from a badass clean air violator can get a MeUndies monthly subscription for $16. This subscription guarantees that a single new undergarment will be delivered to your door step each month, perfect if you're the kind of monster who destroys your luxury underwear on a monthly basis. In an interview with MeUndies co-founder Barak Diskin, Shokrian explained to SocialTech that his background in property management is what helped him get MeUndies off the ground: "With our real estate contacts, we actually had lots of contacts in [product] fulfillment. We found someone we had worked with, and teamed up them."
We're guessing that those contacts Shokrian mentions aren't the day laborers who may or may not develop lung cancer in the future.
UPDATE:Shokrian, unhappy with this story, agreed to talk to Unfair Park this afternoon. He disputes the government's account of what happened. "I had no choice but to sign a lot of documents that misrepresented the truth" or risk more prison time, he says.
He says he worked on the building because the roof had collapsed, and that it was another Califco worker, construction manager Blaise McGinley, who examined its potential asbestos risks. McGinley determined the asbestos was a lower risk, non-friable type of asbestos, Shokrian claims, and he says he took McGinley at his word because "I had know idea about what friable or non-friable was" and McGinley's qualifications were that "he just finished a project where he was dealing with asbestos."(We left a Facebook message for McGinley).
"Blaise never told me that this could be harmful, I went into this building, I never wore a respirator myself," Shokrian adds.
Shokrian does take responsibility for the gasoline incident: "I do admit that wasn't the smartest thing to do, and that was my suggestion," though a follow-up email also hedges on that.
In an unsigned email from Shokrian's account, a person who says that they represent Shokrian and Califco writes that "the incident with the gasoline occurred while Jonathan was on a plane to New York. He was not supervising the operation. He had no idea how much gasoline was being used."