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Probe into Hindu Temple's Mismanaged Tsunami Funds

India New England, News Report, Mark Connors Posted: Nov 23, 2008

Editor's note: Donations raised by a major Connecticut Hindu temple intended to aid victims of the Asian tsunami of 2004 were never donated and were added to the temples general fund. This news report by India New England reporter Mark Connors won for best local news coverage at the New England Ethnic News Awards (NEENAs), the first journalism competition in the region that recognizes the excellence of journalists who report in languages other than English.

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. -- Donations raised by a major Connecticut Hindu temple that officials promised would go to aid victims of the Asian tsunami of 2004 funds that one temple critic says totaled over $10,000 were never donated and were added to the temples general fund, several officials on the temples board said last week.

For heavens sake, this is an emergency need, said Reddy Gunta, a former treasurer and president of the Sri Satyanarayana Temple. We lost over 10,000 people in India alone. Why didnt they donate the money? And where is the money now?

The Middletown-based Connecticut Valley Hindu Temple Society launched an extensive fundraiser to collect money for victims of the disaster in January 2005, which included a phone and e-mail campaign as well as a fundraising event held at the temple, several temple officials said. But then-temple president Prasad Kilaru said the amount raised totaled only about $150, a figure some temple officials said they were dubious of.

Its absolutely more than that. We need to look into this accounting, said Gunta, who noted that the temple raised $85,000 for victims of an earthquake in Gujarat from a similar fundraising campaign during his tenure as president of the organization from 1999 to 2002. If you change the numbers for the tsunami victims, then what can this organization be trusted to do? Its very unfortunate. Its not a good feeling.

For his part, Kilaru insisted that the temple was only able to raise $150. Kilaru said the amount was so low that the executive committee decided not to donate the money because administrative costs required to contribute the funds would likely be more than the total amount raised.

I dont know what happened, but at the end of the day, there wasnt much money raised, he said.

The revelations came after a lawsuit filed by temple lifetime member Vinnay Verma was dropped against the temple. In court filings associated with the lawsuit, Verma painted the picture of an organization with poor and haphazard accounting practices that discriminated against members and lacked accountability to dues-paying members. As a lifetime member, Verma paid the temple a $1,000 life-membership fee. Verma agreed to drop the lawsuit in exchange for a sit-down meeting with members of the temples board.

Vermas lawsuit singled out Kilaru, whom Verma alleged had threatened him after he contested election results for the temples board.

Kilaru denied the accusations. Im happy he dropped the lawsuit, because the allegations were never true in the first place, he said. When I heard about [the lawsuit], I was blown away by the lack of truth in it.

Kilaru said he had very little contact with Verma prior to the lawsuit.

He speculated that Verma may have been angry with him, because he instituted stricter accounting practices during his term as president, including internal audits. Maybe he saw me as a dictator. I dont know, I cant speak for him, he said.

Verma was unable to offer any firm evidence contradicting Kilarus figure for tsunami fundraising efforts. He said one member had told him the temple had raised over $13,000, however Verma said he couldnt recall who provided him with that information.

Mohan Sachdev, a Windsor, Conn. veterinarian who serves on the temples board, said he helped convince Verma to drop the lawsuit and attended the meeting. He confirmed that the board admitted it did not donate the tsunami funds, but said he was unsure how much actual money was raised because he did not serve on the temples board at the time.

Sachdev said he has a good relationship with Verma, and felt he acted in good faith in filing the suit.

Hes a very honorable person and hes very committed to the temple, and I thought many of his concerns were valid, Sachdev said. So I though it was important that we sit down with him.

The lawsuit highlights a growing rift at the temple.

Reeta Gulati, vice president of the temples board, said that she, like Verma, was denied access to basic information like members mailing addresses, when she ran for the temples board last year.

Everythings very hush-hush, said Gulati. The way things are handled and done, its just not right.

Gulati said the temple boards processes have become very politicized, and she said she would consider resigning if the atmosphere does not change.

Divakar Shenoy, a former secretary on the temples board who currently serves as internal auditor, said that Kilaru has secretly tape-recorded meetings and limited his access to basic member information.

I should have had access to that information as secretary, but I didnt, he said, noting that Kilaru insisted on keeping temple records in his possession at all times, bringing them home with him and keeping them in his car. Prasad Kilaru was a control freak.

Even though he got defeated for president, all his people are still there, Gulati said. Hes controlling from the outside.

Current temple president, Faquir Jain, did not return several phone calls.

Effie Patrick, an attorney who represented the temple against Vermas lawsuit, declined to comment on the case.

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