The Wat Lao Buddhavong (WLB) is a Lao Buddhist temple in Fauquier County, Virginia. It is the first Lao temple and one of the largest in the United States. This temple is an institution that has been central to the Laotian immigrant community in the Washington, DC area and across the country since the 1980s. The temple was dedicated in 1983 and is led by Phra Ajarn Maha Bounmy Kittithammavanno, who became a monk at a very young age, and spent a great deal of time in his youth as an acetic forest monk in Laos.
Today, the temple is an active part of the community and welcomes all who wish to grow in the Dharma or learn more about the culture surrounding Buddhism. The temple provides the Laotian Diaspora with a sense of community and kinship and with a place to practice and worship together. It has served as a setting in which all Buddhists can pay homage to the Buddha and has drawn Buddhist practitioners from all over the United States and abroad.
Recently, recriminations of misuse of temple funds by the current Board of Directors (BOD) and a lack of transparency has created a deep division among the Lao American community across the U.S. The following synopsis is a timeline and chronology of some of the events that have led up to the current discord and dispute:
1980 – 2006:
The WLB’s BOD consisted of 17-21 individuals elected by the community.
Ajarn Chanda added Attorney Ilene Tognini to the BOD. She drastically changed the composition of the BOD and the bylaws with the following actions:
- Removed Venerable Bounmy Kittithammavanno as Chairman of the BOD;
- Eliminated the voting rights of the General Assembly;
- Eliminated the General Assembly’s right to nominate members of the BOD; and
- Reduced the number of directors on the BOD from 17 to 11, only three of whom are listed on the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) filing as the BOD. Those three are Ilene Tognini, Ajarn Chanda and Mr. Southalavong Boutha. These three become known as the self-appointed BODs.
Highlights of changes to the bylaws by Ilene Tognini are as follow:
Amended Bylaws 2006
|Article III section A.4: The chairman of the Board shall be the Abbott of the Wat who shall call all meetings of the Board, shall preside at all meetings of the Board, shall appoint all chairmen of committees of the Board, and shall be an ex officio member of all such committees.||
Article III section A.4: The chairman of the Board shall be elected by the members of the Board, and the Board shall appoint all chairmen of committees of the Board, and at least one Board member shall be an ex officio member of all such committees.
Article III section A.1: The number of directors of the Corporation shall be not less than three and not more than seventeen. This may include: a) up to 5 resident monks, b) up to 6 members appointed by the monks, and c) up to 6 members elected by the public from the General Assembly.
Article III section A.1: The number of Directors of the Corporation shall be not less than three and not more than eleven. This may include: a) up to 5 resident Monks, and b) up to 6 members appointed by the monks.
Article IV: Regular member: every person who willingly submits to the Buddhist teachings, by simple uttering of taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; and who has the rights to vote for the general election.
Article IV: Regular member: every person who willingly submits to the Buddhist teachings by simp4e uttering ci taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
The amendment to the bylaws was done without the General Assembly’s knowledge and kept concealed from the community (see table below). This became known to the public through an exhibit in a civil lawsuit filed against the WLB BOD in September 2019. At that time, it became apparent that the current BOD members, Ilene Tognini, Ajarn Chanda, and Southalavong Boutah, had changed the bylaws to concentrate power in their hands. For more than 13 years, no board election has occurred despite the community’s demand for such an election over that period. Ilene Tognini, Ajarn Chanda and Southalavong Boutah have served as the BOD for nearly 15 years, well beyond the four-year term that board members are to serve, and two of them(Ilene and Boutha) no longer live in Virginia.
Questions that need to be answered:
- Why did the BOD remove Venerable Bounmy as Chairman (President of the executive officers)?
- During the last 15 years, why has there been no board election despite the community’s demand for one?
- Why did the BOD eliminate General Assembly voting rights without consulting with the temple’s membership and community?
- Why has the BOD concealed the amendment to the bylaws?
The Advisory Board was added to assist the BOD in accomplishing its tasks and in conducting the temple’s numerous outstanding activities. The Advisory Board analyzed issues that community members were concerned about. Their findings were provided to the WLB BOD. (see Appendix below for full list). Nothing became of it. Some of these recommendations included:
- Asset Management: Conduct a proper inventory of all assets, including the golden Buddha statues, and ensure that they are all insured to cover their market values;
- Hold a General Assembly and an election of 9 or 11 member of the BOD;
- Finance and Governance: Review and publish monthly or quarterly financial statements and an annual report; institute good accounting practices and procedure based on Generally Accepted Accounting Principles to ensure accountability and proper financial management and auditing process.
- Maintenance and Construction: Develop a new construction plan to build a new entrance road and pave parking lots in front and behind the “sala”, and develop a plan to build permanent bathrooms and showers in the entertainment area; and
- Retain an immigration attorney to ensure that all monks are legal aliens by securing greed cards and/or citizenship status.
The Advisory Board was dissolved by the BOD, because the members of the Advisory Board were asking too many questions and were demanding transparency, which the BOD was not willing to address. Several members of the Advisory Board were issued a cease and desist letter to prevent them from speaking out on transparency and accountability and any short comings of the WLB’s BOD.
August 15, 2019:
As of this date and according to an SCC filing, Venerable Bounmy Kittithammavanno was a member of the BOD and President of the executive officers.
August 19, 2019:
Venerable Bounmy Kittithammavanno and Kuba Onla Intichak went to the Union Bank to open a checking account. Since Venerable Bounmy did not have any form of identification with him on that day, he asked Kuba Onla to open an account on his behalf in the name of the WLB Corporation. Kuba Onla did as instructed and initially deposited $100 into the new account. Article VI, section D of the bylaws gives Venerable Bounmy, as the President, the authority to instruct Kuba Onla to open an account. This account was to be used to pay the telephone bills and other operational costs of temple.
While at the bank, Venerable Bounmy learned that a loan had been taken out in the name of the WLB in 2017 in the amount of $570,000 and that a balance was still outstanding. He asked Ajarn Chanda, BOD member and Vice President, and Ilene Tognini, BOD member and Treasurer, for an explanation. They did not respond. Since then, there is evidence that another loan was taken out using the WLB as collateral. To date, the financial transactions of the WLB have not been provided for inspection and review by the members and the community, nor has any independent entity conducted a financial audit.
Questions that need to be answered:
- Who are the members of the BOD that approved the loan?
- Why are they refusing to be transparent and to publish the financial statements?
- Why was the loan taken out?
- Since there are no financial statements and reports, are there other outstanding loans that the community is not aware of?
August 22, 2019:
In response to the community uproar, Venerable Bounmy Kittithammavanno sent a letter to Ilene Tognini terminating her position as Treasurer and all other positions that she holds or may hold with the WLB. This letter is not known to the community, but a copy can be provided.
August 26, 2019:
A General Assembly meeting was called and held at the WLB sala hall. A resolution was approved by the General Assembly to remove Ilene Tognini, Southalavong Boutah and Ajarn Chanda from the WLB BOD and their positions as Executive Officers.
September 3, 2019:
Ilene Tognini filed with the SCC an application to remove Venerable Bounmy Kittithammavanno as a member of the BOD and as President. The SCC application has a hand written date of August 19, 2019, three days before the letter of August 22 to her from Venerable Bounmy Kittithammavanno terminating her positions, but the filing was not submitted to the SCC and registered until 15 days later on September 3.
Questions that need to be answered:
- Is it a coincidence that the SCC paperwork was dated three days before Ilene Tognini received the termination letter from Venerable Bounmy, or did she backdate the paperwork to make it appear that she prepared it before she received the letter?
- Did Ilene Tognini remove Venerable Bounmy as President to take away his authority to fire her and backdate the SCC filing to make it appear that she had the authority to remove him?
- The removal of any executive officer or board member is an urgent matter. Why did she wait more than 15 days to file with the SCC?
September 4, 2019:
Venerable Bounmy Kittithammavanno sent a letter to the community in which he called for a special meeting and notified the community that Ajarn Chanda, Ilene Tognini and Southalavong Boutah were removed from the WLB BOD on August 26, 2019.
September 5, 2019:
Venerable Bounmy Kittithammavanno sent another letter to Ilene Togini, informing her that the General Assembly had removed her as Director and Treasurer and demanding that she turn over WLB’s financial records and transactions. This happened two days after Ilene Tognini sought to remove Venerable Bounmy as a member of the BOD and President. It is not clear whether Venerable Bounmy and the General Assembly knew that Ilene Tognini had done this without notifying anyone outside of the WLB BOD.
September 5, 2019:
In the afternoon of September 7, 2019, Kuba Onla Intichak was working at the temple ground with other monks. Ajarn Chanda and Sisomphanh Tya Sanginthirath (Siengkhaen Laotv Virginia) called police to chase him out or face of being arrested. He was escorted out of the property and served with summon to appear in court on October 7, 2019.
September 6, 2019:
The VA SCC application was filled out with a new BOD comprised of community members. Representing the new BOD, Attorney Mark Sandground filed a civil suit against the former WLB BOD and Phonexay Mingsisouphan (Ajarn Chanda), Ilene Marie Tognini, Esquire, Southalavong Boutah, Phanthana Phrasavath, Onta Mingsisouphanh, William Ngamsanith, Nicole Black, and Atlantic Union Bank. Case number CL 19 409, in part read:
“In sum, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants—former directors Of the Plaintiff Company—have mismanaged and secreted funds meant for the Buddhist temple and improperly diverted said funds for their personal use. It is believed Defendants have absconded with in excess of $800,000. The true extent of this tortious activity is not and cannot be known until an accounting is performed. Plaintiff is seeking for a special master to be appointed to perform an accounting of Plaintiff’s books and for Defendants to be held jointly and severally liable for the full amount that has been wrongfully removed from Plaintiffs’ coffers. Additionally, Plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to enjoin the former directors of the company from holding themselves out as directors, and to freeze all funds held at Atlantic Union Bank regarding this cause.”
September 9, 2019:
The VA SCC accepted and registered updates to the WLB BOD submitted by Attorney Sandground. The SCC filing shows Ilene Tognini, Southalavong Boutah and Ajarn Chanda were removed and replaced with new member of the BOD. The new directors included Khamla Stevens as Director and Treasurer and Venerable Bounmy as the Chair.
September 9, 2019:
The VA SCC filing reflects the new directors and officers and the removal of the following names: Ajarn Chanda, Ilene Tognini and Southalavong Boutah. The SCC document, dated and time stamp, also lists the new WLB BOD. However, this filing is no longer in the SCC database. It is unknown why, how and by whom it was removed.
September 10, 2019:
August McCarthy was hired as legal counsel to represent the WLB Corporation by the current BOD (Ilene Tognini, Southalavong Boutah and Ajarn Chanda).
September 12, 2019:
Ilene Tognini and the former WLB BOD met in a hotel room to discuss the civil lawsuit filed by the new BOD against them. Venerable Bounmy was invited to that meeting without his legal counsel, as he is a member of the new BOD and was listed as the plaintiff in the lawsuit. The former BOD issued a resolution with unanimous consent that the lawsuit against it should be dismissed. In that resolution, the BOD declared that Venerable Bounmy’s agreed with the former WLB BOD’s decision. The resolution in part reads:
“…AND NOW THEREFORE, the Directors determined by unanimous vote and the
Venerable Emeritus Director concurred that the most appropriate course of action is to authorize the Organization’s true and proper attorney, August McCarthy, Esq. to undertake any all appropriate legal action to terminate the Improper Lawsuit, including but not limited to:
Substituting as Counsel and non-suiting the Improper Lawsuit, and advised the Directors and Venerable Emeritus Director with regard to any and all additional appropriate legal actions or sanctions to pursue in order to best protect the Organization and to prevent any Improper Lawsuit in the future.”
Questions that need to be answered:
- Since Venerable Bounmy was removed from the former WLB BOD, why was he invited to the meeting to dismiss the civil lawsuit of which Venerable Bounmy was the plaintiff?
- Why was Venerable Bounmy’s legal counsel not present at the meeting? This was like a prosecuting attorney meeting with a suspect without the suspect’s attorney being present. This should not have happened. As an attorney, Ilene Tognini knew better.
September 13, 2019: August McCarthy, the attorney for WLB, sent a letter to Mark Sandground to terminate the lawsuit. Venerable Bounmy Kittiphane concurred in a resolution adopted by the current BOD expressing that, among other things, the current BOD wishes for the pending lawsuit in the Fauquier Count Circuit Court to be dismissed.
September 14, 2019: The General Assembly meeting was held at WLB to discuss the loan and the potential election of a new BOD, but the meeting became a shouting match, and Ajarn Chanda hijacked the meeting and misled the community by indicating that he intended to resign in 30 days. As of today, March 1, 2020, more than five months later, he is still on the BOD.
September 26, 2019: Kuba Onla Intichak received another no-trespass notice with regard to WLB property even though WLB has been his domicile for the last 14 years. It appears that he was presented with the no-trespass notice, because he was the person who helped with the discovery of the concealed outstanding loan by the BOD.
September 26, 2019: August McCarthy filed a plea in Court. PLEA IN BAR COMES NOW the undersigned Defendants, through counsel, who makes the following plea in bar:
October 5, 2019: At the invitation of Venerable Bounmy Kittiphane, the head monk and president of the WLB, requested Kuba Onla Intichak to return and live at the temple and forget about the no-trespass notice issued by Ilene Tognini.
October 23, 2019: Dr. Watt Sengkhyavong received a no-trespass order. Since then, many other members of the community have received the no-trespass orders, 23 in all. Many of these recipients have supported the temple with love and reverence for many years. Some even played a major role in the establishment of this temple and have been faithful since day one (see list below).
October 25, 2019: August McCarthy charged Kuba Onla Intichak and Khamla Stevens with ID theft with the intent to defraud in opening a checking account at the Union Bank at the direction of the WLB’s President and member of the BOD.
January 6, 2020: The Washington Post published an article on the dispute of Wat Lao Buddhavong titled: “The fight tearing apart a Virginia Buddhist temple: A monk arrested, worshipers banned from their parent’s graves and a questionable loan“
January 15, 2020: The case against Kuba Onla Intichak for ID theft with intent to defraud was heard in front of a judge at the Fauquier County Court, who dismissed the case within two minutes after hearing the facts.
February 5, 2020: The motion of the plaintiff to voluntarily nonsuit CL 19 409 was granted without prejudice. The request for compensation by August McCarthy and Ilene Tognini to cover attorney fees and travel expenses in the total amount of $12,000, $10,000 to McCarthy as an attorney fee and $2,000 to Ilene Tognini for travel expenses. The judge denied the request for compensation.
February 23, 2020: The District Attorney dropped the case against Kuba Onla Intichak for trespassing.
February 24, 2020: WLB Board filed $1,250,000 against five members of the Lao community and Kimberly Richards (disciple of Ajarn Bounmy) and Kuba Onla Inthichak in the Circuit Court of Fauquier County. The named defendants are severely distraught, and demoralized upon receiving news. The community is state of panic with high anxiety. They don’t know if or when the next lawsuit is forthcoming and who will be the next target. Morale in the community has plummeted as people live in fear.
February 26, 2020: Khamla Steven’s court date for Identity Theft. The District Attorney dropped the charge because of the plaintiff’s failure to make a legal argument or bring sufficient evidence to the suit. The case is dismissed.