Judge jails temple leader

Mozingo is a Times staff writer.

The president of Long Beach’s oldest Cambodian Buddhist temple was held in contempt of court Monday and taken into custody after he refused a court order to turn over financial documents in a rancorous fight about who rightly runs the temple.

Siphann Tith, 44, ignored repeated demands by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Joseph Di Loreto to hand over the temple’s assets to a court-appointed receiver while the judge presided over a dispute between two factions of the Cambodian community vying for control of the venerable institution.

The contention erupted in December, when monks and lay people demanded an election of the temple’s board of directors, as required by bylaws that had been ignored for years. Tith agreed to an election, but the effort got bogged down in further controversy over who could cast votes. The monks’ faction went forward with an election in January, voted in a whole new board and locked the old board out of the building.

The fight has sharpened divisions in the nation’s largest Cambodian community. Both sides claim the others are interlopers in Wat Khmer Vipassanaram, the temple founded by survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide in 1985.

The matter landed in court in February, and after an agreement by both sides, Di Loreto appointed the receiver.


But when the receiver asked Tith for the temple’s books, Tith said he didn’t have them anymore. He said the board dissolved the temple’s nonprofit, the Khmer Buddhist Assn., and transferred all the assets to a new organization -- an offshoot of a one-man church run by Johnny Rhondo, a business consultant in Orange County.

Tith argued in court filings that the dissolution of the 23-year-old nonprofit was inspired by Gautama Siddartha, the Buddha himself -- “who gave all his wealth, property and even clothing, before he began the life that ultimately led him to become Buddha.” Tith claimed that death was the only way to Nirvana, and so the nonprofit had to die for its spirit to get there.

Di Loreto did not buy it. “Wasn’t the real reason you did that was to subvert the settlement agreement you reached with the defendants in this case?” he asked Tith earlier this month. Tith argued on his own behalf Monday, saying the court had no jurisdiction over the temple’s assets anymore, because his new organization was not party to the lawsuit, and the plaintiff in the case, the Khmer Buddhist Assn., no longer existed.

Di Loreto remanded him to custody and set bail at $50,000, but later revoked bail.

An attorney representing Larry Sar, a temple founder on the monks’ side, asked the judge to make sure that Tith didn’t use the temple’s money to post bail.

The judge said Tith was already under an order not to use the temple’s money for anything outside the “ordinary course of business.”

Both sides are expected back in court Friday.