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Home / Articles / News / Features /  Death of a Yogi
08-24-11-Sikh-cover
Illustration by Tim gough

Death of a Yogi

The battle for a corporate empire, hundreds of millions of dollars and the meaning of a faith

August 24, 2011, 12:00 am

In downtown Portland, across Southwest 5th Avenue from City Hall, stands a tall glass and aluminum tower. Inside this building, the Pacwest Center, is a safe.


This safe keeps many secrets, but this story is about the disputed contents of a single envelope. Inside the envelope were the last wishes of a holy man, instructions to be revealed after his death.


Many of the holy man’s followers were successful entrepreneurs: One founded Kettle Chips, a Salem-based company whose owners sold it in 2006 for a reported $320 million; others co-founded Golden Temple foods in Eugene, a company famous for its Yogi Tea brand. More than a few of his followers were practicing lawyers. But the holy man trusted one lawyer in particular with the most sensitive matters of money, family and legacy.


The holy man was Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji. Most people called him Yogi Bhajan (pronounced Budg’un). He looked the part, wearing robes and a spotless white turban, his handsome face hidden behind a long, wavy beard. Yogi Bhajan was often photographed looking into the distance; something in his eyes revealed intelligence.


Beginning in the 1970s, Yogi Bhajan helped introduce white America to Kundalini yoga, and recruited thousands of seekers into a new religious movement, Sikh Dharma. Today the group has thousands of followers around the world and hundreds in Oregon.


The trusted lawyer was Roy D Lambert, a tax specialist and partner at the Portland firm of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt. Lambert is not a member of Sikh Dharma. But Lambert had come to know Yogi Bhajan in the 1990s through some legal work he had done for Golden Temple. His square, clean-shaven face and neatly parted hair marked him as an outsider among his turbaned, bearded clients.


When Yogi Bhajan died in October 2004, Lambert asked that the safe be opened and the envelope brought to him. It contained Yogi Bhajan’s will.


Yogi Bhajan’s last wishes would shape the fate of thousands of people, the control of corporations worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and the future of a unique religious group with thousands of followers across the United States and the world.


What Lambert says were in Yogi Bhajan’s last wishes put the control of Sikh Dharma’s holdings into the hands of a few men and women who have since become instantly wealthy, and who have paid Lambert handsomely to do their legal work. Those who lost control of the group’s holdings, including members of the clergy and Yogi Bhajan’s own widow and children, believe they were the victims of a fraud.


Six years after Yogi Bhajan’s death, on a late spring day in 2011, Lambert took the stand in a courtroom in downtown Portland, a key witness in a civil trial fraught with alleged deception, theft, sex and sacrilege.


Controversy over Yogi Bhajan’s final wishes affects the fortunes of thousands of people.

The civil suit, brought by a group of Yogi Bhajan’s followers from New Mexico and later joined by the Oregon attorney general, does not name Lambert as a defendant. (He is a named defendant in a separate civil complaint filed by Yogi Bhajan’s widow and children, in US District Court in Portland, alleging racketeering; he is also the subject of a related Oregon State Bar complaint.) Instead, the suit targets a few Portland Sikhs who have assumed control of the corporate and nonprofit empire built over four decades by Yogi Bhajan’s followers.


The legal cases are extraordinarily complex, with over 800 trial exhibits and thousands of pages of filings aimed at sorting out the byzantine structure of Yogi Bhajan’s organization. It’s all the more confusing given that nearly all the parties share a surname taken after their religious vows: “Khalsa."


Despite the complexity, this is a familiar kind of story: A family argues over a will.


Yet because the will belonged to the head of an obscure church—and because this church has a great deal of money—the legal disputes represent much more.


Many members of the faith are pained by the disputes, but also amazed. The legal process has, for the first time, opened a window into opaque business dealings at the highest levels of their church.


“This is a huge corruption case. It really reads like a spy novel,” says Hari Nam Singh Khalsa, a longtime Portland Sikh convert now living in New York City.


“It’s like the Catholic Church,” Hari Nam adds. “My mother-in-law was an absolutely saintly person, but the people running her church were basically criminals…They may look like they’re saints, and talk like they’re saints—but you dangle 5 cents in front of them, and what do you know?”


The defendants insist they’ve done nothing wrong. They say they earned every penny of the raises they bestowed upon themselves. And they claim Yogi Bhajan left them rightfully in charge after his death.

Depending on who tells his story, Yogi Bhajan was either a charismatic spiritual leader who rescued young hippies from the 1970s drug culture, or a huckster who concocted a woo-woo sect in order to support a lifestyle he could never otherwise have attained. Or both.


He was born with the name Harbhajan Singh Puri to middle-class parents in the Punjab region, in an area that is now part of Pakistan. Certainly, his first few decades did not hint at the prominence he would achieve: Yogi Bhajan worked as a customs agent for 15 years before emigrating to North America to teach yoga.


“He started teaching yoga in 1969. By 1972, there were people [in America] wearing turbans,” says Sat Hanuman Singh Khalsa, a Troutdale TSA agent who joined Sikh Dharma in 1971.


Bhajan later made friends with US senators, governors and Hollywood stars. In a day before Bollywood and Slumdog Millionaire, he helped introduce America to traditions from the Indian subcontinent.


Sikhism is only 500 years old, but it is the eighth-largest world religion, with more than 30 million followers (see sidebar, page 16). Yogi Bhajan added a New Agey twist to traditional Sikh practice, with his embrace of yoga (more of a Hindu thing), astrology and “tantric numerology.”


But the most obvious difference between Punjabi Sikhs and followers of Yogi Bhajan is that most of the latter are American converts. If you meet a white hippie in a Sikh turban who practices Kundalini yoga, odds are pretty good he or she is a member of Sikh Dharma.


“What Yogi Bhajan accomplished,” says his nephew, Surjit P Soni, “is truly remarkable. He came without a dime in his pocket. He started teaching yoga and formed a series of nonprofits. He encouraged entrepreneurialism among a bunch of people that were basically disenfranchised and lost and created at least two significant businesses to perpetuate the nonprofits.”


Under Yogi Bhajan’s guidance, and over a period of decades, the new American Sikhs established a real community.


They built temples; today there are Sikh Dharma gurdwara in Eugene, Salem and Beaverton, Ore., and across the river in Vancouver, Wash. Yogi Bhajan’s followers also established themselves in California, Maryland, New York City, North India and South Africa, but the place Yogi Bhajan and his closest advisers called home was Española.


They married—sometimes, in pairings arranged by Yogi Bhajan—and raised Sikh children.


And, just as importantly for the furtherance of Sikh Dharma, they started profitable companies.


According to Kamalla Rose Kaur, a former Sikh Dharma member in Washington state who now runs a website denouncing the group as a cult, “Yogi Bhajan just slammed the men [in the group] to make money…With the money, they could buy more stuff for Yogi Bhajan.”


Although it appears Yogi Bhajan had little in the way of money or assets, he had a luxurious lifestyle, with a private chauffeur and a large personal staff of secretaries, attendants and nurses who worked as much as 16 hours a day, according to courtroom testimony, interviews with Sikh Dharma members and published reports.


In the rugged high desert of northern New Mexico, members of Sikh Dharma founded Akal Security. At first, the company hired only Sikhs to guard shops and restaurants. Today, Akal is a $500 million-a-year company that protects federal courthouses across the country (and at least one US embassy overseas), has more than 1,000 guards at government buildings in Washington, DC, and, two months ago, expanded its transportation security business with a $150 million baggage-screening contract at the Kansas City airport. The founders donated the company to the church in 1980; it is now controlled by the defendants in the Portland lawsuit.


Roy D Lambert, a Portland tax lawyer, became Yogi Bhajan’s trusted adviser. He is a partner at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt.

Meanwhile, in the lush, green valley of Eugene, a group of about 15 Oregon Sikhs founded Golden Temple foods. Having purchased a bakery and a granola recipe in the early 1970s, the Eugene Sikhs woke up at about 3 am for prayers—as devout Sikh Dharma practitioners still do today—and shared the work: mixing granola, baking bread and making deliveries.


Although members came and went, both companies grew steadily, a real achievement considering that the converted Sikhs had little access to outside capital. In addition to individual tithing, members sometimes donated their companies to the church, with the understanding that profits would be used for the good of the community.


“Many have suffered discrimination because of their appearance,” says Hari Nam Singh Khalsa, a longtime Portlander and Sikh convert. “If you have a family business, it’s a place where people can find work.” 


For the next three decades, Yogi Bhajan and his white Sikhs kept a low profile. There were headlines now and then.


(After 9.11, a number of Sikh cab drivers and business owners suffered violence and vandalism in a wave of xenophobic retribution; presumably the culprits mistook the Sikh turban for a form of Islamic dress. In response, members of Sikh Dharma joined Punjabi-American Sikhs and Muslim groups in public appeals for tolerance. )


For the most part, though, Yogi Bhajan’s followers focused on growing their revenues and chanting their mantras. They kept to themselves and avoided confrontation like they avoided meat and alcohol.


Until he died.

Yogi Bhajan was, by all accounts, mindful of his legacy, and careful to ensure that the movement he founded would continue after his death.


But if he’d hoped to avoid the internal conflicts that tend to follow when an organization loses a powerful leader, it didn’t quite work.


Whether Yogi Bhajan expressly chose successors among anyone in his inner circle—apart from a religious authority—is a matter of dispute. Who should rightfully serve on the boards of the corporations that hold Sikh Dharma’s assets is at issue in at least two separate lawsuits in Portland.


What is clear is this:


None of the people who wound up in control of the Sikh Dharma organization are Yogi Bhajan’s wife, Bibiji Inderjit Kaur Puri, and children in Los Angeles, who have filed a federal lawsuit against the people who did wind up in charge.


None of them are the spiritual authorities of Sikh Dharma in New Mexico.


And most of the people who wound up in charge of the Sikh Dharma empire no longer look like the other Sikhs.


Kartar Singh Khalsa is chief executive of Golden Temple foods.

The four people who control the Sikh Dharma organization, through their seats on the board of a corporation called Unto Infinity, include former members of Yogi Bhajan’s personal staff, plus the chief executive of Golden Temple. Three of the four now live in Portland. They are Golden Temple CEO Kartar Singh Khalsa; his domestic partner, Peraim Kaur Khalsa, who was a member of Yogi Bhajan’s personal staff; Sikh Dharma’s longtime comptroller, Sopurkh Kaur Khalsa; and the organization’s strategic and legal planner, Siri Karm Kaur Khalsa, a New Mexico resident.
Those four, who could either not be reached or declined to be interviewed, are at the heart of the lawsuits. 


The gist of the complaints against them is that they breached their fiduciary duties by selling off the cereal division of Golden Temple to Hearthside Food Solutions last year for $71 million, of which $21 million went to the Golden Temple managers, including $10 million to Kartar, the CEO. The plaintiffs also say the Unto Infinity board and Golden Temple managers paid themselves inflated salaries even while they reduced support for the Sikh Dharma religious organizations and for Yogi Bhajan’s widow and children.


The court testimony showed that within three years of Yogi Bhajan’s death, the four began preparing to restructure Golden Temple in a way that would transfer ownership from the church to a company controlled by Unto Infinity’s board. Not long after, Kartar, Peraim and others with Unto Infinity and Golden Temple management traded their robes for business suits. They doffed their turbans and cut their hair. 


They allegedly started eating meat and drinking alcohol, both forbidden. Kartar left his wife for Peraim.


Kartar left sleepy Eugene behind and purchased a $550,000 waterfront condo just north of the Fremont Bridge, where he now lives with Peraim. Earlier this year, Portland police ticketed his Porsche.


Kartar, who bears a passing resemblance to the actor Liam Neeson, now wears his hair short and braided tightly in the back. Born Tom Burns, he met Yogi Bhajan in 1973, at a Kundalini yoga class in Corvallis, Ore., and went to work for Golden Temple in Eugene soon after. 


He and the three others in charge of Sikh Dharma are, in the minds of many who devoted themselves to Yogi Bhajan for decades, no longer Sikhs. 


Soon, a judge in Portland will decide if they deserve the power they attained.

The Oregon Attorney General’s office joined the case this year. The state’s involvement was all but unprecedented.


“We do not typically intervene in litigation when we believe the charitable interests are being sufficiently represented or protected by private individuals. But given the concerns regarding the private parties’ standing, the size of the disputed transaction and some questionable aspects of the transaction, we felt it was appropriate to get involved,” Oregon Department of Justice spokesman Tony Green says.


That trial began on May 23, concluded on June 17, and both sides—along with dozens of Sikhs who traveled from all over the world to watch—are awaiting a decision from Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Leslie Roberts.


Peraim Kaur Khalsa was a member of Yogi Bhajan’s personal staff.

Roberts gave signals during the course of the trial that she sympathized with the plaintiffs and the state—at least insofar as she believes the cereal division of Golden Temple should not have been sold. But she also made clear that she is uncomfortable with the attorney general’s proposed remedy—that she appoint a receiver to take charge of the Sikh Dharma organization. As the defendants have noted, such a decision would result in court-appointed clergy, a clear First Amendment problem.


If she only had to decide whether or not the new leaders of Sikh Dharma breached their duties, Roberts’ decision might be simple. But the plaintiffs’ argument goes deeper than that. They also argue that the new Sikh Dharma leaders in Portland should never have attained their positions in the first place.


There is some evidence to back them up. But the truth of what Yogi Bhajan wanted may never be known.


It all comes back to what was—and what was not—in that envelope in the safe in Roy Lambert’s office downtown: the yogi’s last secret.

What was in the envelope?


Nothing. At least, not the thing that everyone expected.


According to Lambert’s own testimony, Yogi Bhajan was supposed to leave two sets of instructions to be followed after his death. The first was to be the name of his chosen successor as spiritual leader of Sikh Dharma. The second was to be a list of directors who would oversee the corporate side of things.


In his court testimony, Lambert claimed that when he opened the envelope containing Yogi Bhajan’s will, he found only one name: that of Sikh Dharma’s religious authority, Guru Amrit Kaur Khalsa. She was promptly appointed.


But according to Lambert, the second list of names was not in the envelope. As a consequence, control over Yogi Bhajan and Sikh Dharma’s affairs fell to an Oregon nonprofit corporation, Unto Infinity, which is controlled by the four people who are now defendants.


Guru Amrit Kaur Khalsa is Siri Sikhdar Sahiba of Sikh Dharma. Amrit, spiritual leader of Sikh Dharma, also wants a corporate director’s chair.
Credits: Insert Credits...

Bizarrely, one year after Yogi Bhajan’s death, Lambert wrote an email to a Golden Temple manager in Europe, which was introduced as evidence in the circuit court case. In the email, Lambert states that there was a list of names that Yogi Bhajan intended to run the companies—and that those names included Yogi Bhajan’s wife, one of his sons, and 11 others, some of whom are plaintiffs in the Portland circuit court case.


Yet, by 2007, Lambert had switched stories, claiming that the names he wrote about in 2005 were not really the people Yogi Bhajan intended to run the companies.


“I have no basis for understanding why I thought that [2005 list] was true,” Lambert said at trial.


In the past years, those who control Sikh Darma’s affairs have done well; according to an analysis of the tax returns of the four Unto Infinity board members, from 2007 through 2010, Sopurkh made $515,000, Peraim made $502,000 and Siri Karm made $545,000, while plaintiffs figure Golden Temple CEO Kartar made $15.8 million as a result of the company’s asset sale and restructuring. Unto Infinity’s lawyer, Lambert, who was originally hired by Kartar in 1992, did well, too.


Lambert claimed at least $300,000 in hourly billings for his work advising Unto Infinity and the Golden Temple executives; more importantly, he has a director’s seat on the Legacy of Yogiji Foundation, which manages Sikh Dharma’s considerable real estate holdings, and a powerful advisory role with the Unto Infinity board.


Surjit P Soni, the widow’s lawyer, believes Lambert hid or destroyed evidence: the missing list of directors. He wants Lambert stripped of the right to practice law.


“He is as bad an apple, if not a worse apple, than the other four” defendants, Soni says. “I’m absolutely convinced of that.”


Lambert denies all such criticism and calls the bar complaint “a joke,” but won’t say much more.


“I’m not going to spread this through Willamette Week,” Lambert says.

Author’s note: On Aug. 9, the Oregon State Bar referred the complaint against Lambert to the bar’s office of disciplinary counsel, which will consider whether he committed any misconduct.  SFR

 

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