A widely acclaimed agreement by the Yosemite Park and Curry Co. to sell its hotels and other holdings in Yosemite National Park to the government contained a provision awarding nearly $2 million in severance pay to five company executives.
The executive buyout plan, which became public on Friday, was described by National Park Service Director James Ridenour as "small potatoes."
But environmentalists assailed the severence package, warning that it would raise the cost of doing business in the park, which would in turn result in the continued commercialization of one of the nation's natural wonders.
U.S. Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. won widespread praise last January for helping negotiate the agreement because it removed the famed Ahwahnee Hotel and other buildings in the park from the prospect of Japanese control.
At the time the accord was reached, there was widespread consternation because the Curry Co.'s long-held concession contract had fallen into Japanese hands. The Curry Co.'s parent firm, MCA Inc., had been bought out by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. of Japan.
Under terms of the accord, the Curry Co. was to sell its holdings for $62 million to the nonprofit National Park Foundation, which would then deed the property to the National Park Service when the Curry Co.'s contract for the concession expires Sept. 30, 1993. Bidding will be held to determine who will run the park concession. The purchase will be financed by revenues earned by the next concession.
But the so-called "golden parachute" provision for the Curry Co. executives was not made public. On Friday, Lujan's office said he was unaware of the provision until mid-March.
Ridenour denied a report in the San Jose Mercury News as well as the remarks to The Times of his own spokesman, Duncan Murrow, that Ridenour was unaware of the provision.
"I think he's (Murrow) mistaken. I've thought it through seriously as to when I knew that. I'm convinced that I knew . . . on the same day," Ridenour said in a telephone interview early Friday evening from Yellowstone National Park.
Spokesman for the Curry Co. and MCA did not return phone calls placed by The Times.
Negotiators are still hammering out the final agreement, based on the understanding announced last January. It was unclear whether the salary severance package would remain or who would pay for it.
But Ridenour told The Times that he foresaw no problems. "We're not talking about a deal-breaking amount of money," he said. "It's really small potatoes in terms of this package deal."
In any case, Ridenour said, the government had the opportunity to withdraw from the deal any time if it found undisclosed liabilities after a high-level negotiating session last January.
He said several hours before the agreement was signed, his assistants had been informed of the severance package by MCA officials. "We didn't see it presented a big enough problem to back out," he said.
The severance package for the five executives, including Curry Co. President Ed Hardy, is nearly $2 million, the San Jose Mercury News reported Friday. The newspaper quoted unnamed government sources as saying Hardy's annual earnings were between $410,000 to $425,000.
The payments to Hardy and four other executives would cover two full years of salaries after Curry's contract expires, if the Curry Co. does not win the new concession.
Lujan's press secretary, Steven Goldstein, and Morrow called severance pay "standard business practice."
They said it would be up to MCA and the National Park Foundation to make any changes.
Goldstein said Lujan has removed himself from the ongoing negotiations because of a potential conflict of interest. The Interior Department oversees the National Park Service. In addition, Lujan sits on the National Park Foundation board.
Word of the golden parachute provisions drew opposition from environmentalists.
Marc Frances, chairman of the club's Yosemite Trust Task Force, warned that the severance pay will make it all the more difficult for whoever wins the next concessionaire contract to make the park less commercial.
The new concessionaire, he explained, will have to generate $2 million in additional revenue to pay for the salary buyout. That may necessitate more commercialization at Yosemite, not less, Frances said.