Sikh Group Finds Calling in Homeland SecurityLESLIE WAYNE -- NYTimes -- September 28, 2004
SPANOLA, N.M. - At the end of a dusty road, behind a barbed-wire fence, is the Sikh Dharma of New Mexico, a religious compound with a golden temple of worship, a collection of trailers used for business and a quiet group of people wandering the grounds wearing flowing white robes and turbans.
In the New Age culture here, the Sikh Dharma community, founded in the early 1970's, provides a place where admirers of Yogi Bhajan, a Sikh spiritual leader and yoga master, can live in harmony and follow their beliefs in vegetarianism, meditation and community service. Except for Yogi Bhajan, who was born in India and came to the United States in 1969, most members of the Sikh Dharma are American-born converts who moved here to pursue their way of life.
The compound is also home to Akal Security, wholly owned by the Sikh Dharma and one of the nation's fastest-growing security companies, benefiting from a surge in post-9/11 business. With 12,000 employees and over $1 billion in federal contracts, Akal specializes in protecting vital and sensitive government sites, from military installations to federal courts to airports and water supply systems.
Despite Akal's unusual lineage, Sikh Dharma members say they are following an ancient Sikh tradition of the warrior-saint - as well as showing deftness at the more modern skill of landing federal contracts.
"Our customers look at who we are and filter it all out,'' Daya Singh Khalsa, Akal's co-founder and senior vice president, said in an interview in his office here. "They couldn't be less interested in our religion and what we look like.''
Among Sikhs "there is no stigma in being financially successful,'' Mr. Khalsa added. "Prosperity does not take away from spiritual net worth. You can have both."
Akal certainly bears that out. It is the nation's largest provider of security officers for federal courthouses, with contracts for 400 buildings in 44 states, including the federal courthouse in Manhattan.
The company just won a major contract to guard Army bases and munitions dumps in eight states, and also provides guards for the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, blocks from the White House. It handles security at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, as well as at four new detention centers run by the Homeland Security Department where foreigners await deportation.
In the straight-laced world of the security business, where most people have a police or military background, Akal stands out. It is the only security company that anyone in the business, including Akal's own executives, can think of that is owned by a nonprofit religious organization.
"If we are in a room with 50 other contractors, you won't remember the other guy, but you will remember us," said Mr. Khalsa, who wears a white turban, has a long beard and refrains from cutting his hair.
It has also not hurt that Akal has been a generous campaign contributor to both Democratic and Republican candidates at the federal level, and that Mr. Khalsa has met with President Bush both in the White House and in New Mexico. Local New Mexico politicians have also benefited from this largess - and responded with friendship and support.
Four former New Mexico governors stopped by Yogi Bhajan's recent 75th-birthday party; Gov. Bill Richardson was last year's keynote speaker at the group's International Peace Prayer Day.
"We play in the political arena like everyone else," Mr. Khalsa said. He and his wife, Sat Nirmal Kaur Khalsa, who is Akal's chief executive, have given more than $30,000 to both Democratic and Republican federal candidates since 2000.
Mr. Khalsa, who was once known as Daniel Cohn, was given his name by Yogi Bhajan after he moved here in 1971, soon after graduating from Amherst College. Like other members of the 300-family Sikh Dharma community, he has adopted the name Khalsa, which refers to a group of orthodox Sikhs.
The Sikh Dharma community here blends New Age values and orthodox Sikhism, a monotheistic religion that originated in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent in the 15th century.
"We are not used to non-Punjabis joining our religion; it is a curious development," said Gurinder Singh Mann, professor of Sikh studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who explained that many of these new converts are more devout than those born into the religion.
Unlike their counterparts in India, women in Sikh Dharma wear turbans, as do some of the children. Most members of the Sikh Dharma live in modest houses near the compound and Yogi Bhajan's ranch in Espanola, the Hacienda De Guru Ram Das Gurdwara. Yogi Bhajan has arranged many marriages within the community.
Under Akal's biggest security contract, worth $854 million, it provides protection for federal courthouses and judges. While federal courthouse guards wear United States marshals' uniforms in nine districts, their employer is Akal, which hires mainly former police and military officers, almost none of them Sikhs. Akal's contract with the guards prohibits them from wearing turbans or having facial hair, unlike the company's Sikh officials, who are required to do so by their religion.
For all the group's unusual ways, government officials have few complaints about Akal. "Our people have done checks on them years ago and we have no issues with them," said John Kraus, a contracting officer for the Department of Justice. "Last I've checked, we've had freedom of religion."
One high-profile contract Akal recently garnered, beating 20 other companies, was for $250 million to provide security guards at five Army bases and three weapons depots. The Army has turned to the private sector to replace soldiers sent to Iraq.
Competition was based on ability, past performance and price, according to an Army official, who added that Akal's religious ties were not a factor, nor did Akal benefit as a religious group.
"We do not discriminate based on race, creed, religion or national origin," the official said. "It was never really a factor."
Because of that open approach, Akal has almost exclusively gone after government contracts.
"The federal government has created the fairest acquisition system in the world," Mr. Khalsa said. He added that with the company's low overhead - Mr. Khalsa, its top executive, earns a modest $90,000 - Akal is "very price-competitive" in the eyes of government agencies on tight budgets.
Yet Ira A. Lipman, founder and chairman of Guardsmark, one of the nation's largest security companies, is critical of the government's low-price approach to protecting important installations.
"You have people working in highly sensitive government sites and the government is working on a low-rate concept," Mr. Lipman said. "This company has taken advantage of a low-rate mentality in the government to assemble a lot of business. But let the buyer beware and let the public focus on the people and their experience."
Akal is just one of several for-profit and nonprofit entities that are part of a larger Sikh Dharma financial empire. These include Golden Temple, a natural foods company that makes Yogi herbal teas, Soothing Touch health and beauty products, Peace natural cereals, dietary supplements and private-label products for Trader Joe's, the specialty food chain. Its annual revenues exceed $60 million.
Akal and Golden Temple both operate under the loose umbrella of the Khalsa International Industry and Trading Company, which also includes Sun & Son, a computer software company.
The sole shareholder of all these companies is the Sikh Dharma church.
Equally important are a number of nonprofit ventures also owned by Sikh Dharma. The biggest of these is the 3HO Foundation, with the name standing for Healthy, Happy and Holy Organization. That group is dedicated to the spread of Kundalini yoga, which is focused on releasing inner energy, and of Yogi Bhajan's teachings. Other nonprofit organizations have been set up to preserve Yogi Bhajan's archives as well as to support a Sikh Dharma school in India, where many of the group's children are sent.
"The whole point of all these ventures is not for an individual to get rich, but to perpetuate the mission of the community," said Avtar Hari Singh Khalsa, who, as Arthur S. Warshaw, was once president of Time-Life Television in Hollywood. Today he is chief executive of the 3HO Foundation and other nonprofits.
No money from Akal, Golden Temple or the other profit-making ventures goes to the church, which is supported by donations, officials say. Sending money to the church is barred by Akal's bankers and could also jeopardize the tax-exempt status of the church. Akal pays no dividends and plows all cash generated back into the business to support its expansion, Daya Khalsa said.
Officials here say that no individual member of the Sikh Dharma community, including Akal executives and Yogi Bhajan, has any equity in either Akal, Golden Temple or any other profit-making businesses. Yogi Bhajan has served as an unpaid Akal adviser and has been hired, occasionally, as a paid consultant on Akal management issues.
Yogi Bhajan's guidance led to the founding of Akal. In 1980, Akal's other co-founder, Gurutej Khalsa, found that although he had graduated from several law enforcement schools, his beard and turban prevented him from getting a job. He turned to Yogi Bhajan for advice and was told that if he started his own company, the police would begin to work for him.
The Amar Infinity Foundation, based in Phoenix, is also tied in financially. It has $100 million in assets, gained mainly through individual donations and through such fund-raising events as the annual Yogiji Golf Classic in Phoenix. Amar Infinity was set up to support the 3HO Foundation, the Sikh Dharma and a long list of other nonprofit groups.
A final piece of the Sikh Dharma financial mosaic is the Siri Singh Sahib, a nonprofit organization set up, according to its state incorporation papers, to "administer and manage affairs of Sikh religion." Yogi Bhajan is the sole officer and director.
Akal has developed a comfortable relationship with leaders of both major political parties. In Daya Khalsa's office are numerous "grip and grin" photos of him with various politicians, including President Bush, former President Bill Clinton and former vice president Al Gore.
Akal donates at the state level, too, giving $10,539 to Governor Richardson's 2002 election campaign and thousands more to the New Mexico Democratic and Republican parties.
Federal election records also show numerous political contributions to both parties from various Khalsas of Espanola, in amounts ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars, along with $14,000 in contributions from Yogi Bhajan.
The group has built up trust at the federal level over a long period. When questions were raised after Akal landed its first big contract in 1986 to protect the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, Senator Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico, rose to Akal's defense.
"People were saying, 'How could you let these foreign whomevers take over a critical weapons testing site?' " Daya Khalsa recalled. "And he said that we were friends and that we're good Americans doing a good job."