I was interested to see a story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution the other day regarding the “Hindu Temple of Georgia”:
The property of the Hindu Temple of Georgia was sold to the highest bidder Tuesday at a public foreclosure auction in Gwinnett County. It was unclear who bought the nine-acre property at 5900 Brook Hollow Parkway in Norcross following the temple’s default on a $2.3 million bank loan. A Gwinnett County court clerk said it typically takes about 30 days for a deed to be recorded after a foreclosure sale occurs. (link)
The person who ran the temple is the real story:
Lloyd Whitaker, a trustee appointed by a federal bankruptcy judge, said Anderson Lakes had intended to bid on the parcel. Court documents filed by the trustee this week say the temple’s leader and guru, Annamalai Annamalai, has been using the temple to “defeat justice, perpetuate fraud, and to evade contractual and tort responsibilities” since it was set up in 2006.
The trustee’s investigation has so far revealed that Annamalai, a citizen of India, applied for a work visa in 2007 under the pretext of working as an accountant for the temple for $40,000 a year. Yet Annamalai’s business records list his income at upward of $425,000 last year alone, court documents show. He has never filed federal or state tax returns, and the Internal Revenue Service has launched a criminal investigation into Annamalai’s financial dealings.
Financial documents obtained by the trustee also show that Annamalai has funneled money from the temple to other business entities that he controls, to accounts in the names of his wife and two children and to several of his priests. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in temple funds were used pay for the mortgage on Annamalai’s million-dollar mansion in Duluth, as well as his luxury vehicles and credit card bills, according to the court record. (link)
Why might all this be of interest, you may wonder.
Well, this past summer, Abhi and I received a “cease and desist” letter from attorneys representing the priest named in the AJC article asking us to delete a blog post I wrote in 2008 related to the Hindu Temple of Georgia. We also received a subpoena regarding the identity of a commenter on the comments thread following the post (someone who clearly had links to the Temple, not an ordinary commenter). My own first thought was that I was ready to basically give in to the threat, just to make it go away. At the time I got the letter, I was in a a bit of a blogging hiatus, and I had little interest in dealing with a potentially costly and time-consuming lawsuit related to something I had posted on Sepia Mutiny.
But after consulting with Abhi and a lawyer friend of Abhi’s in New York, it was decided that we would say no to the Cease and Desist: the blog post stayed, effectively unaltered. (As an attempt to mollify the Temple after getting several harassing phone calls from them, I had already added, some weeks earlier, one small update, indicating that one set of fraud charges against the Temple had been dropped.)
Nothing I had said in my original post could reasonably be construed as defamatory. Indeed, I had gone out of my way in the original post to try and see things from “Commander Selvam’s” side of things, pointing out that some aspects of the Fox 5 Atlanta story on him seemed somewhat exaggerated. Even the subtitle of the post seemed fair: “What do you think?”
By refusing to delete the blog post in question, we knew there was a significant danger of getting sued. Through a consultation with a journalist interested in the case we learned that the temple had already filed suit against at least one major media organization. They were also suing virtually everyone who had spoken out against the temple in any of the news coverage surrounding it, not to mention former temple employees.
Our lawyer friend also counseled us that we could ignore the subpoena regarding the identity of the commenter on the blog post in question. We also followed that advice; we let the comments stand, and did not reveal their IP addresses to the Temple.
Given how many lawsuits these guys were involved with in Gwinnett County, the writing seemed to be on the wall. I started talking to lawyers I knew in the Atlanta area, and began checking Orbitz to see how much it would cost me if I had to fly down to deal with what seemed like an inevitability.
But amazingly, we didn’t get any further correspondence from the Temple.
And then, on September 1, the Temple filed for bankruptcy. The stories in the Atlanta press, as well as at Fox 5 Atlanta, suggested that virtually no one in Atlanta was frequenting this particular temple anymore. (There are several other Hindu temples in Atlanta — all respectable institutions. After the bad press started coming out, folks who had been going to this particular temple had apparently started going elsewhere.)
On November 19, there was this story in the AJC, suggesting that both local and federal law authorities were aggressively moving against the head of the temple. The IRS was pursuing criminal charges, and the USCIS was planning to revoke the Commander’s visa.
And this week, the temple property was sold in foreclosure — meaning this particular story is probably at an end.
What did we learn? Aside from being gratified to see that a principled stance could acutally pay off, I learned a little bit about laws regarding defamation and how they affect blogs. You can definitely be sued for something you say about someone on a blog if it is defamatory. Most times, you are not liable for something a commenter might have said in the thread responding to your post — along the idea that a comments thread is like a public forum (AOL cannot be liable for everything people say in their chat rooms…). However, in at least one case, a blogger was held liable for defamatory statements on his blog, because the court found evidence that he had been an active moderator of the comments thread.
Readers who also have their own blogs might want to keep some of that in mind..