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Khalsa vs. Khalsa

A simmering lawsuit could decide the fate of a $1 billion Sikh empire

July 7, 2010, 12:00 am

The new millenium brought another wave of discrimination against people wearing long beards and turbans.

America’s bigots may have frequently confused Sikh cab drivers for Al Qaeda sympathizers, but the US government was more discerning. Indeed, the worst terrorist attacks in US history turned out to be great for Sikh Dharma’s flagship business.

Two weeks after the 9.11 attacks, Akal co-founder and President Daya Singh Khalsa met George W Bush at the White House to discuss new airport security measures, as well as anti-Sikh discrimination.

Today, Akal’s best customers are the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. According to a federal contracts website, Akal and its subsidiary Coastal International Security have received at least $3.5 billion in federal awards since 2000.

Akal’s charges include federal courthouses, military bases and US embassies abroad. On top of that, Akal profits from untallied millions in contracts with state and local governments across the country.

Akal co-founder and President Daya Singh refuses to disclose numbers. “We take advantage of our privately held status,” he tells SFR.

Estimates vary, but Avtar Hari says Akal has $500 million in annual revenues and approximately 15,000 employees.

The company boasts reams of client testimonials and awards. But, as might be expected for so large an enterprise, Akal’s record also has some blotches.

In 2003, Akal won the “access control” contract for Fort Hood, Texas, after the Pentagon began deploying the National Guard to Afghanistan and Iraq. Akal lost the contract four years later, having paid $18 million to settle a federal lawsuit that claimed the company had failed to hire enough properly trained guards.

(In a sense, Akal lucked out by losing the Fort Hood contract before the shooting massacre on base last year.)

In 2007, the City of Phoenix fined Akal for repeated contract violations, including airport guards sleeping on the job. And in 2009, guards at the federal courthouse in San Francisco sued Akal for retaliation after they complained about coworkers being drunk and high on duty and, in one case, waving a gun around.

Obviously, the Sikh Dharma company isn’t responsible for the more controversial policies of its biggest client, the federal government, but it has proved happy to carry them out. For instance, Akal guards illegal immigrants on government-chartered flights from Tucson, Ariz., to Mexico City, working under the deportation contractor, CSI Aviation Services of Albuquerque.

CSI was founded by former New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Allen Weh. This year, Akal gave Weh $2,000 for his failed gubernatorial campaign.

Such generosity toward politicians surely aided the company’s rise from a small, local outfit whose contracts once specified “Sikh guards only,” to one of the biggest players in private security, in league with Wackenhut and Blackwater.

In New Mexico, the company’s best allies are Democrats. It has given thousands to the gubernatorial bid of Lt. Gov. Diane Denish. Attorney General Gary King, who runs the state’s key investigative office, also has benefited.

Akal has been one of Gov. Bill Richardson’s biggest donors, kicking $46,000 to his political committees over the years. A handful of other Sikh entrepreneurs and businesses, including Golden Temple of Oregon, have contributed another $23,000.

Richardson appointed Akal co-founder Gurutej Singh to the Private Investigations Advisory Board, which regulates security companies.

When Bhajan died, Richardson ordered state flags flown at half-staff. Later, the governor visited Española to dedicate Yogi Bhajan Memorial Highway. It intersects Interstate 285 at the Trans-Lux Dreamcatcher Cinema and winds eastward, past the golden dome of the Sikh Dharma temple.

When SFR visited in late June, the placid green campus of Sikh Dharma was deserted. Most of the 200-some Sikh families who live in the area were miles away in the hills, celebrating the summer solstice.

SFR came at the invitation of Avtar Hari, a genial, scholarly type who abandoned an entertainment and real estate career to follow another path.

“No one is more surprised than I am when I look in the mirror,” he says. “I have a lot of three-piece suits in the closet.”

Former SDI Board Chairman Avtar Hari Singh is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit to regain control of the organization.

As it is, his attire consists of a white robe and turban, only shades brighter than his long white beard.

Years ago, as Arthur Warshaw, he was president of Time-Life Television. As Avtar Hari, he put his Harvard Business School degree to use as board chairman of Sikh Dharma International—until Dec. 3, 2009, when he was stripped of the title.

He provides a tour of the temple, which features a striking mural of the Virgen de Guadalupe sandwiched between two meditating gurus.

Outside, as monsoon clouds gather, Avtar Hari points across the grassy lawn to the headquarters of Akal Security. It seems odd that the squat, prefab-looking structure a stone’s throw from the temple houses a half-billion-dollar company that employs a number of people with high-level security clearances.

But then, Akal rarely seeks to draw attention to itself or its religious origins. Golden Temple, the food company in Oregon, takes a different tack, printing yoga poses and religious sayings on boxes of Yogi tea. (In 2008, the Sikh Dharma business leaders in Oregon removed Yogi Bhajan’s picture from
the packaging.)

With no outside equity investment, Avtar Hari says, these two companies grew to have a combined annual revenue of $800 million. And the profits have allowed Sikh Dharma to sustain its membership and spread the word.

Yogi Bhajan always intended that “these companies would provide jobs for our children and anyone else who wanted to work in a conscious business,” Avtar Hari says.

Most Akal employees are not Sikh, but some children of Sikh Dharma will find work in the Khalsa family business. In a video posted online, Akal co-founder Gurutej Singh leads dozens of youths in a tug-of-war type challenge at Camp Miri Piri, Sikh Dharma’s youth academy in India.

Some fear the leaders of the coup will sell off the training camp, as they did the cereal division of Golden Temple earlier this year.

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