Business dispute divides Eugene-area Sikhs

EUGENE — The question of who owns and controls Golden Temple, the profitable food processor founded in Eugene 30 years ago by Sikh believers, lies at the heart of a bitter dispute that is dividing the local Sikh community.

The rift has erupted in a messy lawsuit in Multnomah County. In court documents, one group of Sikh believers is accusing another group, including Golden Temple CEO Kartar Khalsa, of enriching themselves by grabbing power and wresting control of the nonprofit religious group's businesses following the 2004 death of the group's leader, Yogi Bhajan.

In court filings, attorneys representing Khalsa and the other defendants dispute those claims.

A hearing in Multnomah Circuit Court on the defendants' motion to dismiss the lawsuit is scheduled for Friday.

Molly Cooney-Mesker, a spokeswoman for Golden Temple's Yogi brand of cereal and teas, said the company does not comment on legal issues.

On Wednesday, the Lane County Board of Commissioners weighed in on the matter by sending a letter to the state attorney general's office requesting it "to intervene in this lawsuit and to help in any way possible the beneficiaries of the Sikh Dharma nonprofit organizations."

The board became aware of the issue after receiving a letter summarizing the lawsuit's allegations and other concerns including fear that Golden Temple will be sold from Krishna Khalsa, a member of the Sikh community for 40 years, who worked at Golden Temple for eight years until he retired in 2005.

Board Chairman Bill Fleenor said the potential threat of job losses at Golden Temple motivated him to get involved.

"The letter we agreed to send to the attorney general basically requested that if there is/are any actual violations, that his office perform appropriate and necessary due diligence," Fleenor said.

Golden Temple, founded in 1973, grew from a small bakery that provided bread and granola to local Sikh believers into a $125 million global enterprise. It had 330 employees in Eugene and 100 in Europe as of October.

"We have received the (commissioners' letter), but it's too early to say anything beyond the fact that we received it," said Tony Green, spokesman for the attorney general's office, which regulates nonprofit organizations through its charitable activities section. Golden Temple is a for-profit business owned by the nonprofit religious group.

"There's no way, without spending some time looking at this thing, to say what we're going to do," he said.

Krishna Khalsa also sent a letter to Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy. Piercy said Krishna Khalsa shared his concerns with her and urged her to write to the state attorney general. She said she wanted to discuss the matter with the attorney general's office and the city's legal staff before making any decisions.

"I certainly think that Golden Temple plays an important role in our local economy, so anything that affects Golden Temple affects our economy," she said. "To that extent, I just need more information right now."

John McGrory, the plaintiff's attorney, who is representing members of Sikh Dharma International, said his clients believe the defendants are taking the spiritual community's assets and using them for their personal benefit not to benefit the overall Sikh community.

They filed the lawsuit, he said, to ensure that the wishes and teachings of Yogi Bhajan are being carried out by whoever is running the Sikh community's organizations. They are seeking at least $3 million in damages, according to the lawsuit.

The defendants' attorney, Gary Roberts, said his clients are carrying out Yogi Bhajan's wishes.

"Yogi Bhajan made a very thoughtful, deliberate decision over a couple of years' time that after he died he wanted to have in one section the people he wanted in charge of the religion side of it — that's some of the plaintiffs — and on the other side, he wanted people with more business acumen to be in charge of the for-profit companies that would generate money that would go out to the community.

"They're very, very unhappy that he didn't choose them to run the business side," he said of the plaintiffs. "The fact of the matter is they're not qualified to run the business."

Roberts said he and his clients believe the lawsuit will be dismissed on legal grounds. But if it advances and they have the opportunity to argue the facts of the case, he said, "not only have (the defendants) not been stealing, or done anything wrong, but what they've done is made decisions that absolutely were the right decisions."

Share This Story