“We think it’s a very good result,” said John McGrory, attorney for one of the religious leader, Guru Amrit Kaur Khalsa, “It’s good for the plaintiffs because the judge has stated several times in her rulings that these defendants have breeched their fiduciary duties and is making sure that there will be provisions in place that these assets do come back.”
“During his lifetime, Yogi Bhajan maintained exclusive central authority over the organizations he created to advance the world view and practices he taught,” Judge Leslie Roberts said in her Dec. 12, 2011, judgment.
“The dispute involves a Russian nesting doll of non-profit and for-profit entities, organized by and through Yogi Bhajan beginning in the mid-1970s,” she said.
Before Yogi Bhajan died in 2004, he left financial control of his empire to Unto Infinity, a charitable limited liability corporation in Oregon. Its board of directors was responsible for his for-profit and non-profit businesses, including Sikhnet.com, the most popular Web site for Sikh content, Akal Security, one of the largest security company in the country, the Golden Temple food company and Sikh Dharma International, the name of Yogi Bhajan’s religious community.
On Sept. 21, 2009, the dharma’s religious leaders, including Guru Amrit Kaur Khalsa, chief spiritual authority and chair-holder of the dharma’s board of directors; Hari Dharam Kaur Khalsa, chief minister of the Espanola, New Mexico, community; Avtar Hari Singh Khalsa, former executive director of SikhNet, and Gurutej Singh Khalsa, founder of Akal Security, filed a lawsuit in the Multnomah County Circuit Court against Unto Infinity, accusing the business leaders of unjustly enriching themselves after a 2007 reorganization that gave its managers total control of the yogi’s empire.
They sued Kartar Singh Khalsa, an executive at Golden Temple Management, a limited liability corporation that controls the food company by the same name, and its five other board of managers: Karam Singh Khalsa, chief financial officer, Ajeet Singh Khalsa, chief operations officer, Gurudhan Singh Khalsa, sales manager, Guru Hari Singh Khalsa, research director and Robert Ziehl, marketing manager.
Kartar Khalsa’s attorney, Irving Potter, did not return several requests from SikhNN for an interview.
By December, Unto Infinity fired Siri Sikhdar Sahiba Sardarni Amrit Kaur Khalsa, head minister of Sikh Dharma International, and her staff. It also fired its board of directors and the rest of the plaintiffs, and installed new religious leaders.
According to sikhdharma.org, Yogi Bhajan adopted the idea of a religious ministry in early 1970’s when he founded his community. And although Yogi Bhajan’s community adheres to many Sikh principles including prayer and observing the traditional Sikh physical appearance, ordaining ministers is among its many practices that contradict fundamental Sikh beliefs.
In Sikhism, humans have a direct relationship with God. Ministers and priests are an unnecessary authority.
But according to sikhdharma.org, “The Sikh Dharma Ministry is established to serve the unique Western Society structure, develop leadership responsibility and accountability, and serve the growing mission of Sikh Dharma.”
One of the question on Sikh Dharma Minister’s Exam 2012 asks, “The Siri Singh Sahib gave us Five Sutras of the Aquarian Age: Recognize that the other person is you. There is a way through every block. When the time in on you, start, and the pressure will be off. Understand through compassion or you will misunderstand the times. Vibrate the Cosmos. The Cosmos shall clear the path. How do you employ these Sutras in your capacity as a Minister?”
Sometime during the 2007 reorganization, Kartar Khalsa, and two of the other managers stopped wearing Yogi Bhajan’s bana of all-white turban and kurta-pajama.
The 2007 reorganization included the selling of Golden Temple foods company to Golden Temple Management executives for $100 each. The managers ended up acquiring 90 percent interest in the food company.
They proceeded to remove references to Yogi Bhajan from Yogi Tea and Peace Cereal packages and Web sites, and terminated royalty payments to Yogi Bhajan’s wife and staff. They then sold the cereal division in the first part of 2010 to Hearthside Food Solutions of Illinois. Included in the sale was the ownership and use of the Golden Temple brand name and logo.
Originally, all shares of the food company were donated to the dharma and its profits provided financial support for it and non-profits. It was estimated to be worth about $24 million, according to court documents.
But since the reorganization, the dharma lost control of the business and no longer received full financial support. Golden Temple managers, however, ended up making millions.
On May 13, 2010, the dharma’s lawsuit was amended to include Golden Temple Management.
Kenneth Davis and Michael Farnell, representing Golden Temple Management, did not respond to numerous SikhNN phone calls and voicemails requesting comment.
On Oct. 27, 2010, Oregon Attorney General John Kroger also filed a lawsuit on against Golden Temple Management and Unto Infinity for breech of judiciary duty. The two cases were combined soon after.
On June 17, 2011, the last day of the trial for financial control of Yogi Bhajan’s empire, Judge Roberts said the 2007 reorganization made by Unto Infinity and Golden Temple Management was "unfair."
Though Yogi Bhajan's lawyer, Roy Lambert, was not a defendant in this case, the judge held him responsible for being the mastermind of the complex restructuring of Yogi Bhajan's empire that eventually led to the lawsuits.
On Feb. 18, Kartar Khalsa and Golden Temple Management filed for bankruptcy after losing the lawsuit on Dec. 12, 2011, but the case was sent back to Judge Roberts.
On April 11, Judge Roberts ordered Golden Temple managers to return all income in excess of salary to the dharma. The estimated total is between $30 million and $35 million, McGrory told The Register-Guard newspaper.
The dharma is “very happy” with the judge’s ruling, McGrory said, even though the judge has not yet set a time frame for the managers to return the assets.
“That is still being reaped with the court,” he said. “We are working on presenting a final order to the court, which will have that in there.” The next hearing was scheduled for April 27.
Kevin M. Sali, attorney for the dharma, withheld comment.
“I think in light of the fact that this is still an ongoing process and Judge Roberts has not issued an ultimate and final judgment in this case, out of respect for that process, Sikh Dharma International is going to refrain from answering any of those questions at this time,” he told SikhNN.
In her remedies statement, Judge Roberts said: “The performance of board members of Unto Infinity, and most prominently that of Kartar Singh Khalsa, is disappointing… Their behavior was reckless in the extreme.
“The named defendants acted in brazen self-interest to the detriment of the trust” and that “all these individuals should be removed from positions of power.”
But she stopped short of removing any members of either Unto Infinity or Golden Temple Management. The basis of her decision came from her desire to keep religious affairs and stately affairs separate.
“Whatever the merits of the religious corporate structures and governance adopted by the yogi, the court will not restructure essentially religious organizations along lines that might seem more democratic to the court, or that might seem fairer to elements within the religious community,” she wrote.
But shortly after April 25, Bibiji Inderjit Kaur Puri, Yogi Bhajan’s wife and chief religious minister of Sikh Dharma International, wrote a proclamation statement expelling the Unto Infinity board of directors on the grounds that they cut off their hair and breeched their fiduciary duties.
“…I am the Chief Religious Minister of Sikh Dharma responsible for Sikh Dharma religious matters… and the power to veto actions which do not conform to Sikh (Dharma) religious doctrine and practices…” she wrote. “It is my duty as Bhai Sahiba to declare that Sopurkh Kaur Khalsa, Peraim Kaur Khalsa, Siri Karam Kaur Khalsa and Kartar Singh Khalsa established that they are unfit to hold the office of Minister of Divinity of Sikh Dharma, and their ministership is hereby revoked, effectively immediately.”
A new selection process is in order and will culminate on May 21.
But Ajai Singh Khalsa, the current head of Sikh Dharma International, dismissed Bibiji’s authority in an April 24 statement on the dharma’s Web site.
“Bibiji Inderjit Kaur Puri is not the ‘Bhai Sahiba of Sikh Dharma International’,” he said. “Sikh Dharma International has no position titled ‘Chief Religious Minister’. Except for her publicly acknowledged status as a Sikh Dharma Minister, Bibiji Inderjit Kaur Puri is not a director, officer, employee of nor volunteer with Sikh Dharma International and is not authorized in any other capacity to speak on its behalf.”
Note: Anju Kaur, staff journalist, contributed to this report.