Judge orders Buddhist temple to pay $350,000

By Greg Mellen, Press Telegram, July 15, 2008

LONG BEACH, CA (USA) -- The tumultuous legal battle for control of a Cambodian temple took a bizarre turn Monday when a Superior Court judge ordered $350,000 be immediately turned over to a court-assigned receiver and threatened contempt of court charges against several participants.

The move came after the receiver appointed on July 2 to manage the finances of the Khmer Buddhist Association was denied access to paperwork.

The Khmer Buddhist Association is a nonprofit organization that oversees Wat Vipassanaram, a Buddhist temple at 1239 E. 20th St., six properties and about $4 million in assets.

In a statement, David Pasternak, the receiver, said Siphann Tith, president of the Khmer Buddhist Association, told him July 8 that the assets were donated to a newly formed organization called "Wat Khmer Vipassaram" (sic) and had been put under the supervision of the Church of Revelation in Orange.

Pasternak said Tith also refused to turn over about $350,000 which he controlled.

When John Ramirez, the master of the church, was contacted, according to Pasternak, he also refused to turn over any control, assets or documents.

Pasternak had no further comment Tuesday, but in his application requesting the court to order Tith and Ramirez to comply, wrote the funds had been moved in apparent violation of the court order, that Tith and Ramirez were aware of the receivership and that "there is significant risk that the funds and
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books and records will disappear or be dissipated if the receiver and the court do not act quickly."

Tith and Ramirez were unavailable for comment. There is no phone listing for the Church of Revelation in Orange although it is listed as a legitimate religious nonprofit by Guidestar.

Neither Tith nor Ramirez appeared at the court hearing Monday. Superior Court Judge Joseph DiLoretto ordered Tith to immediately give Pasternak the funds and scheduled Ramirez and the church to appear in court Aug. 4 to show cause why they should not be judged in contempt.

James Stroud, an attorney representing Tith and KBA, said he is appealing the court's jurisdiction and its right to require the turning over of records and property.

He said he was attempting to arrange for a bond before Aug. 4 to halt the court proceedings against his client. Stroud also said he had filed a petition with the California Supreme Court.

Since February, two sides have been in Long Beach Superior Court vying for control of the nonprofit temple and its assets.

When the opposing sides were unable to agree on even basic issues, DiLoretto first appointed a commission to deal with disputes and set up procedures for an election for a board of directors. DiLoretto grudgingly appointed the receiver on July 2 when financial negotiations continued to bog down.

At that time the existing board of directors at the temple was ordered to turn over financial control and all documents of the organization to the receiver.

To date that has not happened.

The rift dates back to January when a dissident group, supported by the temple monks, staged an election for a new board of directors for the nonprofit agency that runs the temple.

The group charged the board of directors with mistreating the monks, restricting their movement, opening personal mail and threats of expulsion.

In a controversial election, a new board of directors was voted in in January.

The existing board invalidated the results, claiming the election was not in keeping with bylaws and was fraudulent.

The existing board has remained in control of the temple while the legal dispute continues.

Money shifted History of dispute Trading allegations

Stroud said Tith and the existing board of directors are "victims of an outrageous smear campaign" by the dissidents.

Attorney Bill Shibley represents part of the dissident group seeking control of the temple and is amazed at what he sees as "arrogance" by the existing board in ignoring the court's rulings.

Opponents of the existing board also contend that it has spent about $250,000 of temple money in legal fees, money that was intended to go toward construction of a new temple on the property.

Mindful of those concerns, DiLoretto ordered that the fees of the receiver, about $475 an hour, be paid directly by the existing board of directors and not from temple funds. He is also considering ordering board members to use personal funds for legal fees as well.

"They have been defiant again and again," said dissident Paline Soth, of the existing board. "Arrogantly they defy a judge again and again."