Featured Story, Part One of a Three-part Series
by Christine Gralow
KAILUA, HI - Toward the end of Hawai'i's plantation economy and the beginning of the psychedelic counterculture movement of the 1960s and '70s, a charismatic, young yogi named Kris Butler developed a small following of surfers, drifters, and chanters. Heavily influenced by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the group lived for a while in its early days under Lunalilo Freeway, near U.H. Manoa. In September 1970, Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter Nadine Wharton found 20 of Butler's young followers living together in an oversized tent, freely chanting the Hare Krishna mantra “at the top of their lungs” and beating bongos beneath the traffic. At the time, Butler went by Sai Young and was “very familiar with mind expanding chemicals,” as stated in the biographical section of his self-published, 1970 booklet, Sai Speaks: Pleasure is the Goal.
By the mid-'70s, after formally joining then bitterly breaking with ISKCON amid allegations of a stolen temple, the once free-spirited group grew increasingly organized and protective of its leader. Butler claimed ISKCON's “big men” were plotting to kill him. ISKCON founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada dismissed the claim as “childish”.
On Kaua'i and Maui, Butler's loyal devotees – by then at least a few dozen - began organizing a vast political and financial network, centered on Butler as their spiritual master and earthly conduit to the Hindu deity Krishna. Initially amateurish, the group's political arm - formally started as Independents for Godly Government (IGG) in 1976 – became a major force in Hawai'i's politics, reaching the U.S. Congress in 2012 with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawai'i).
A key part of the Butler group's financial arm, rooted in Hawai'i's Down to Earth vegetarian grocery chain and the QNET international pyramid scheme, is currently being scrutinized in the Supreme Court of India. QNET executives, including at least two long-time Butler devotees, have been arrested or are wanted by police in at least half a dozen countries.
Historical documentarian and Kaua'i resident John Wehrheim recalls the Butler group running “a beautiful farm operation” in the '70s on the North Shore Kaua'i land now owned by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Wehrheim said the success of the farm was due partly to the free labor of Butler's devotees. He got to know Butler and his group while documenting the lifestyle at Taylor Camp - another Kaua‘i North Shore hippie group - for the Kaua‘i Historical Society.
Wehrheim said he and the Taylor Campers regularly attended events at Butler’s farm for the free vegetarian food, or prasadam (food offered to Krishna). He recalls that Butler was "extremely charming, but he also had a massive ego."
Wehrheim, who is married to former Kaua'i Mayor and current Kaua'i Councilmember JoAnn Yukimura, said he also observed Butler's early interest in politics. He said Butler unsuccessfully attempted to recruit Yukimura. (Yukimura declined to comment.)
Butler's "MO was to recruit influential locals who could run for office,” Wehrheim said.
Though the IGG party that Butler's followers founded in the mid-'70s did not formally last, the group’s heavy involvement in Hawai'i's politics did. Elected officials who have been Butler devotees include former Hawai'i State Sen. Rick Reed, former Maui County Councilman Wayne Nishiki, current Hawai'i State Sen. Mike Gabbard, former Hawai'i State Board of Education member Carol Gabbard, and current U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
Rep. Gabbard celebrated Butler (now Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupanda Paramahamsa) as her “guru dev” in a video presentation for a 2015 ISKCON anniversary event. She has been recognized as the first Hindu U.S. Congressmember, and she co-chairs the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans. She identifies as a Vaishnava Hindu, Karma yogi, and Bhakti yogi. She is the daughter of early Butler followers Sen. Mike and Carol Gabbard.
Leaked '80s Letters
More than 60 pages of internal letters leaked from within Butler’s Science of Identity Foundation (SIF) chronicle a period in the 1980s when SIF faced organizational conflict and a negative cash flow. In one letter, a SIF disciple who served as Butler’s personal secretary urged Butler’s “disciples around the world” to “take whatever steps necessary to ensure that we do not run out of cash --- it is imperative.”
Other letters document Butler’s abusiveness toward disciples and his view that SIF money belonged to him personally. An internal memo describes how Butler became angry and cursed at a disciple because the disciple used SIF money to buy a lei for Butler. The disciple wrote in a September 1987 letter that Butler was “extremely displeased” by the lei incident “and gave the following message to me and the other people involved: [CAPITALIZED EXPLETIVE] YOU!” (The disciple typed the actual expletive.)
A December 1987 letter details how SIF money was used to charter a private jet for Butler from Hawai'i to the mainland. The letter describes how Butler complained that there was not enough room for him in the private jet cabin, so he threw the air filters that had been custom installed for him off the jet, then griped about the poor air quality on the jet. May 1988 letters describe how Butler accused disciples of poisoning him through light bulb fumes and blamed “90 percent” of his personal health problems on the behavior of his disciples.
Former Butler followers leaked the letters and asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. The subject of one message from an ex-Butler follower who wanted to share information with journalists but expressed fear was, “The Retaliation is Real.” News tips from this person consistently factually checked out. Details in the internal letters, including phone numbers, are factually verifiable. Details in the letters also correspond with the independent accounts of four men who grew up deeply within SIF and have since taken steps to leave the group.
Ex-Followers and SIF Schools
Two of the men who have left SIF, Ian Koviak and Rama Ranson, have been publicly critical of Butler and SIF online. Meanwhile in Hawai'i confirmed the identities of the other two men and their previous deep involvement in SIF through communication with the men over periods of six and nine months respectively. They asked not to be named for fear of being cut off from relatives who still follow Butler.
Three of the men attended a SIF boarding school in the Philippines and two attended Sen. Gabbard’s Ponomauloa School in the late ‘80s in Wahiawa, O‘ahu. (One attended both schools.) They all said they were taught at the schools to worship Butler and his wife Wai Lana as messengers of God. They also all said they were repeatedly subjected as children to Butler’s sexually graphic, deeply homophobic diatribes.
The man who attended both schools described Butler’s tape-recorded lectures, which were played for children at the schools, as “full of vitriol and hate. So much hate towards gays, and basically anyone else who doesn’t follow the path.”
“These tapes don’t make it out to public for obvious reasons,” he added.
The men all independently stated that they did not celebrate Diwali or identify as Hindu while growing up within SIF. Rather, they said, they practiced Butler’s unique interpretation of ISKCON's teachings combined with some Christian traditions.
"We did not identify at all as Hindus growing up in Butler's group,” wrote Koviak, who attended the SIF boarding school in the Philippines for four and a half years. “That's a new thing that really fits in with the Tulsi agenda."
“We sang Christmas carols like you wouldn’t believe,” said another man who attended Ponomauloa School. “So many Christmas carols.”
The men are all of the same generation as Rep. Gabbard, and - like Rep. Gabbard - grew up with parents who followed Butler. One man provided class pictures of himself and other children wearing SIF uniforms at both the Philippines and Wahiawa schools. In the Ponomauloa School photo, Carol Gabbard stands behind the girls on one side, and Sen. Gabbard stands behind the boys on the other side. Sen. Gabbard’s official website still lists “Ponomauloa School, Wahiawa— Headmaster/teacher (7/83 to 6/87)” as professional experience.
All four men say they clearly recall growing up around Sen. Gabbard as Krishna Katha das (sometimes spelled Krsna Katha das) in the ‘80s. None recalls anyone other than Sen. Gabbard going by Krishna Katha das within SIF.
The leaked internal letters from the ‘80s repeatedly refer to Krishna Katha das/Krsna Katha Das as Butler’s Secretary of Personal Affairs. A July 1987 letter states, “Krsna Katha das is no longer Secretary for [Butler's] Personal Affairs due to the stupid or extremely unresponsible [sic] things that he has done.”
In addition to Sen. Gabbard, those heavily named in the internal letters as Butler’s close personal assistants include Down to Earth CEO Mark Fergusson (aka Mahabhagavat das) and Sunil Khemaney (aka Syamasundara das.) The letter regarding the call for disciples to do whatever necessary to ensure SIF did not “run out of cash” was signed "Syamasundara das."
Khemaney (Syamasundara das) now works for Rep. Gabbard, assisting her with fundraising and relations within the Hindu American community. He facilitated her talk at an August 2014 event in Atlanta hosted by Overseas Friends of BJP, a group that supports India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Khemaney also traveled with Rep. Gabbard to India in December 2014.
At the Overseas Friends of BJP event, Rep. Gabbard described Khemaney as her “team member,” and said, “He’s been like an uncle to me since I was a child. And he didn’t have any involvement in politics until I ran for Congress, and now he cannot escape. He’s in this.”
One of the men who grew up deeply within SIF and requested protection of his identity described Khemaney as, “Butler’s ninja. His right-hand man.” The man said he clearly recalls Khemaney from the '80s and early '90s.
"He was always running around with a big phone, and we all knew he was talking to Butler," the man said of Khemaney. "He didn't chant at the [SIF] events like the rest of us. He had a different status."
Khemaney can be seen sitting to Butler’s immediate left in an old episode of Jagad Guru Speaks, dubbed in Polish. Sen. and Carol Gabbard also appear in the episode, titled, "Sex I Can't Get No Satisfaction." (Note: The episode was deleted from YouTube shortly after publication of this article. An account of SIF’s activities in Poland from a mother whose son was involved in SIF can still be read here.)
Trouble in India
Another Butler follower repeatedly named in the leaked letters is New Zealander Allan Tibby (aka Acharya das). One letter describes how Tibby, Sen. Gabbard, Khemaney, and Down to Earth's Fergusson were all part of a committee in the late ‘80s that was trying to organize SIF to better serve Butler.
As Butler has become increasingly eccentric and reclusive, Tibby - a jet-setting international businessman with continued close ties to the Gabbards - has served as SIF’s public spiritual teacher, marriage officiant, YouTube face, and international tour speaker. Tibby has led Kirtan (devotional chanting) sessions at Church of the Crossroads in Honolulu and the Bhakti Yoga Shack on Kaua‘i. Former SIF members Koviak and Ranson both say Tibby was an administrator of the SIF boarding school they attended in Baguio City, Philippines.
Tibby has been wanted by police in India on money laundering charges since 2009. He is prominently named as “absconding” in a police document filed by the Chennai City Directorate of Prosecution office. Chennai police charged Tibby with financial fraud under India’s Prize Chits and Money Circulation Schemes Banning Act.
Chennai-based attorney Mahesh Kanna, who has spearheaded legal action against white collar crime in India, said Tibby’s legal status in Chennai remains “absconding accused.” Tibby did not respond to a request for comment on the allegations.
Chennai police accused Tibby of conspiring with QI Group Chairman Vijay Eswaran in a case allegedly involving over US$170 million earned through an illegal pyramid scheme operated in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state. QI Group has repeatedly changed names after facing legal trouble. The company has operated as QNET, GoldQuest, QuestNet, Vihaan Direct Selling, V Dimension, etc. Tibby and Eswaran are accused of attempting to launder and diversify the pyramid scheme money through resort and construction front companies. Police froze Tibby’s Indian bank accounts.
QI Group owns the Down to Earth grocery chain in Hawai'i and its parent company, Healthy’s, Inc. SIF is also heavily financially tied to Healthy’s, Inc. Although publicly available SIF tax information is limited, a 2012 return shows SIF earned 96% of its profit from a sale of Healthy’s, Inc. stock. In 2004, SIF reported receiving a donation of Healthy’s, Inc. shares worth US$929,256.
Tibby and Eswaran’s close business partner, QI Group Managing Director Joseph Bismark, is a long-time Butler follower who owns two homes in Hawai'i used by Butler and his disciples. Bismark listed “The Science of Identity University” as his education on his Google Plus page. He said in a 2012 interview that he came from a broken family, ran away from home at age nine, and ended up at a “seminary type of school” in the Philippines, where he was a vegetarian “monk” until age 17. (SIF has run several schools in the Philippines, which four former students described as "indoctrination" programs). Bismark was also listed as “a student of Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa” on a flyer for a July 2017 meditation talk.
Bismark and Eswaran were charged in the Philippines with syndicated estafa (racketeering) in a 2007 case allegedly involving US$90 million. The men narrowly legally escaped extradition from Indonesia to the Philippines on an INTERPOL warrant. The maximum penalty for syndicated estafa in the Philippines is death.
QI Group has also faced legal trouble in at least ten other countries, including Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan. The Pyramidal Mirage, a documentary that aired in 2010 on Iran’s PressTV, covered QI Group’s (then GoldQuest’s) devastating economic impact in Iran. The documentary alleges that the GoldQuest scam was “one of the largest economic corruption cases in Iran’s history,” costing the country “eight billion dollars.” PressTV reported in December 2009 that “at least 120 GoldQuest agents” were arrested at an Iranian airport when they arrived there from Bangkok.
The Times of India covered arrests earlier this year of QI Group representatives in Mumbai, Delhi, and Pune. In a 10-page summary of its 2012 investigation of QI Group, India’s Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO) called the company’s activities “purely cheating apart from being outrightly illegal.”
The SFIO investigators reported that pyramid schemes in India have caused “social, financial, psychological, and economic sufferings” to “millions of people.” They also warned India's leaders that pyramid schemes are a “potential threat to National Security.”
The Chennai police document naming Tibby reported over 32,000 financial fraud victims in India’s Tamil Nadu state alone. The Tamil Nadu region is the historic center of the Bhakti yoga movement, which Tibby and SIF purportedly promote. The Chennai police document also reported QI Group’s recruitment of “young rural boys and girls.”
In Indonesia, a July 2017 story from Bisnis.com reported police evacuation of a shelter that housed dozens of rural teenagers who were recruited to work as QI Group representatives.
QI Group whistleblower Gurupreet Singh Anand, a computer consultant from Mumbai, said he began dedicating his life to legally fighting the company after his wife fell victim to the fraud.
“They are laundering money out of poor third world countries and breaking up families, destroying lives of common people,” Anand wrote to Meanwhile in Hawai ‘i.
Anand told Moneylife India that his wife hoped to buy a product that a QI Group representative told her could cure their son’s brain disorder. Anand has since testified in several legal cases against QI Group in India, including an ongoing case in India's Supreme Court. Moneylife India has extensively covered QI Group’s activities in the country and has publicized events to assist fraud victims.
Meanwhile in Hawai‘i reviewed the financial statements of Tibby’s New Zealand-based The Pukaki Trust, which is registered as a charity organization. In 2009, the company reported total asset of only US$671. Total reported assets climbed to over US$650,000 in 2010 and stayed relatively stable until 2014, when The Pukaki Trust reported total assets of nearly US$5 million. It is not clear from the reports how the company gained the funds.
The Pukaki Trust appears to have changed its accounting method in 2016. Total assets were not reported in a method consistent with previous years’ reports and were difficult to decipher. It is clear, however, from the charity’s 2016 performance report - obtained by Meanwhile in Hawai‘i from New Zealand’s Charity Services division - that money was moved between The Pukaki Trust and Tibby’s five other New Zealand businesses. Money was also exchanged between The Pukaki Trust and QI Group's Joseph Bismark, as well as The Pukaki Trust and the Australian School of Meditation and Yoga (ASMY), which is SIF's affiliate in Australia.
The Pukaki Trust included a special note in its 2016 annual performance report about an “exciting” increase in “the number of volunteers ... engaging in Karma Yoga (selfless service).” SIF disciples volunteer their time and work in service to Butler. Many work full-time in exchange for room and board.
ASMY is run by long-time Butler disciples, and it is registered as an Australian charity. ASMY has also been tied to the former Sunset Studios, which was run by Butler disciples. Sunset Studios produced Butler’s Jagad Guru Speaks local cable television show in the ‘80s.
ASMY reported total assets of over US$21 million in 2016. A review of ASMY’s annual financial reports from 2014 through 2016 found that it is unclear from the reports where the money came from. QI Group's Bismark also ran a SIF affiliate in Singapore, Singapore School of Meditation and Yoga, with a model almost identical to ASMY's.
Tibby is spearheading a land development project in New Zealand’s Lake Pukaki region, where Butler and Tibby were involved in a local community conflict in the ‘90s. Former Member of New Zealand Parliament Alec Neill publicly suggested that Butler's group was a cult and that its film company, Ti Leaf Productions Limited, was a front for criminal activity. SIF sued Neill, and Neill told New Zealand journalist Bevan Hurley that the suit “just about destroyed [him], both financially and otherwise."
Neill wrote in an email that he was not able to comment for this story.
A review of data available through OpenCorporates found that Ti Leaf Productions Limited was registered in Hong Kong in 1993 as Megastar World Trade Limited. Butler disciple Khemaney, who now works for Rep. Gabbard, was one of the company’s directors, along with four other Butler disciples.
QI Group's Bismark owns two Kailua, O‘ahu, homes used for business and residence by Butler and his disciples. Among those who have lived in Bismark’s homes are Rep. Gabbard’s Chief of Staff, Kainoa Penaroza, and his wife, Alana Penaroza, who has served as Rep. Gabbard’s Finance Director. The Penarozas lived in and ran their business, Tag Aloha, from Bismark’s Enchanted Lake, Kailua, home. Bismark has used the Enchanted Lake address as a QI Group business address.
Bismark also owns a multi-million-dollar oceanfront home in Kailua's upscale Lanikai neighborhood, which is used by Butler and some of his closest disciples. Penaroza’s mother, Barbara Penaroza - who is one of Butler’s cooks - has lived in the Lanikai home. His father, William Penaroza, was an early Butler follower and the IGG political party’s first chairman. Both William Penaroza and Sen. Mike Gabbard previously ran for the U.S. House of Representatives seat now held by Rep. Gabbard. William Penaroza has since distanced himself from Butler and SIF, while Kainoa, Alana, and Barbara Penaroza remain deeply involved.
Bismark, Eswaran, and Khemaney are all directors of Healthy’s, Inc, aka Down to Earth. Khemaney has also been an agent of about a dozen other businesses closely linked to SIF. Far from being loosely connected to Khemaney's business world, Rep. Gabbard has a documented history of direct involvement. Multiple business directories list Rep. Gabbard - who legally changed her name from Tulasi Gabbard Tamayo to Tulsi Gabbard in 2011 - as a former agent of several SIF-tied businesses, including Healthy's, Inc., Sunset Studios, and 3 Kicks Productions.
Multiple directories also indicate that Rep. Gabbard used a Kailua P.O. Box for various SIF-connected business purposes. Directories show that the same Kailua P.O. Box was used for SIF-connected business purposes by at least ten other Butler devotees, including Rep. Gabbard’s Campaign Treasurer, Talia Tamayo Khurana (formerly Talia Tamayo). Khurana is also listed in several domain directories as the owner of the domains www.chrisbutler.com and www.chris-butler.com (neither website is currently functioning).
Bismark's and Tibby’s long-time, close involvement with Butler and SIF is well-documented, as is Tibby’s continued close connection to the Gabbards. In September 2012, the Honolulu Star Advertiser described Tibby’s wife, Linda Tibby, as an “avid campaigner” for Rep. Gabbard. The article covered a gathering of Rep. Gabbard’s close supporters, including her parents and other Butler disciples, at Kailua’s Big City Diner. They watched Rep. Gabbard’s televised speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. The speech signaled Rep. Gabbard’s early rise within the Democratic National Committee.
Rep. Gabbard, Sen. Gabbard, and Carol Gabbard all attended a small wedding officiated by Tibby on O‘ahu in October 2016. A framed picture of Butler can be seen next to Tibby in a video of the wedding shared publicly on Facebook. Tibby married his daughter to a relatively new SIF recruit, who became involved in SIF after meeting a Butler disciple while golfing at Lanikai’s Mid-Pacific Country Club. Tibby publicly thanked Sen. Gabbard on Facebook for his performance at the wedding.
Sen. Gabbard, Rep. Gabbard, SIF, and Healthy's, Inc. did not respond to inquiries from Meanwhile in Hawai'i. QI Group responded with a demand to know the “editorial direction of the story.”
It is not known if any illicit money reached political campaigns.
Butler's Web, Part 2: Who is Gabbard's Guru
Note: This article was updated on October 29, 2017, to add subheadings and a detail about a Science of Identity video that was removed from YouTube after publication of this article. The location of the wedding mentioned in the article was also updated from "Ka'a'awa, O'ahu" to "O'ahu" after a reader provided information that the wedding may have been have been held near - but not in - Ka'a'awa. Readers have also expressed concern about the spelling of Butler's first name. While he has often gone by Chris Butler, a sibling and a high school registrar reported his birth name as Kris Butler (no middle name). Meanwhile in Hawai'i found no evidence that he legally changed his first name to Chris.