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Eleven years ago, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, now a rising star in the Democratic Party, was a little-known state representative from a West Oahu district. It was her then-Republican father, Mike, who was in the political limelight.
The elder Gabbard, known for his virulent anti-gay crusade in the 1990s, was challenging Democratic incumbent Ed Case in the race to represent Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District. So, for a profile piece, a writer at Honolulu Magazine emailed him and asked about his family’s ties to a guru named Chris Butler, aka Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa, who leads an obscure offshoot of the Hare Krishna movement in Hawaii.
But it was Tulsi Gabbard who jumped in. “I smell a skunk,” she emailed back. “It’s clear to me that you’re acting as a conduit for … homosexual extremist supporters of Ed Case.”
Much has changed with Tulsi Gabbard since then. She enlisted in the Hawaii Army National Guard and served two tours in the Middle East before successfully running for a seat on the Honolulu City Council in 2010. Then, in 2012, she got what eluded her father — a seat representing Hawaii in Congress.
But one thing has remained: The Gabbard family’s ties to Butler still hound her — in the hallways of the Hawaii State Capitol, on blogs of political observers, on pages of online discussion forums, and in commentary sections of various news sites, including Civil Beat’s.
Now, the mysterious world that’s been swirling around Gabbard all her life is coming under closer scrutiny as the 33-year-old congresswoman’s stature on the national stage steadily rises, and her views on national and international issues — whether she’s standing up for veterans or challenging President Barack Obama over his stance on the Islamic State — continue to draw the media spotlight.
During the past few weeks, speculation about her place in that world has intensified, thanks in no small part to two recent developments in her life, one personal and one professional: her upcoming marriage to Abraham Williams and the appointment of Kainoa Ramananda Penaroza as her top advisor.
“While my parents and I have a very close relationship, and we love each other and respect each other very much, we don’t agree on everything.” — U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
Both men grew up in the same offbeat religious world as Gabbard. Many of the people who still talk about and obsess over the Gabbard family’s ties to Butler try to also paint both Williams and Penaroza as devotees of the guru.
A Civil Beat review of decades’ worth of records and Internet postings, as well as interviews with the Butler group’s insiders and observers alike, found that, as with Gabbard, there is no evidence that either of the men adheres to Butler’s teachings.
Gabbard declined to be interviewed for this story but, through her spokesman, issued a written statement to Civil Beat. The statement, however, does not address the subject of this article — which was explained in detail to the spokesman — and instead only offers her thoughts on being the first Hindu elected to Congress.
Williams and Penaroza could not be reached for comment. Gabbard’s parents, Mike and Carol, and other staff members also could not be reached or did not respond to Civil Beat’s request for comment.
Still, the Internet continues to provide a ready forum for the commotion over Gabbard to fester — you need look no further than a thread on the Cult Education Institute’s forum titled, “Chris Butler, Jagad Guru, Science of Identity.” Civil Beat recently scanned the entire thread and found a trove of information, including useful links, scanned copies of news articles and other historical documents.
For this story, Civil Beat drew on information from the forum that could be verified, along with other publicly available documents and news articles, as well as interviews with people who have intimate knowledge about the community of Butler devotees.
What emerged is a fascinating look at the world Gabbard and her close associates grew up in. It’s another lens through which to view the fast-rising congresswoman.
The Cult Education Institute’s forum on Chris Butler began back in 2004 and is still going strong. It has lasted long enough to reach nearly 500 pages, containing thousands of lengthy posts intended to shed light on Butler and the inner workings of his group, called the Science of Identity Foundation.
The group formed in the early 1970s, and its leaders later sought to turn the organization into a political force in Hawaii by fielding a number of candidates for key political offices over the years. By and large, the candidates pushed for a brand of social reform that seemed to mimic Butler’s teachings, which stressed environmentalism, vegetarianism, and opposition to homosexuality and “illicit” sex.
And they had some successes: former state Sen. Rick Reed; former Maui County Council Member Wayne Nishiki; Mike Gabbard, who came back from his loss to Case to win a state Senate seat; and Carol Gabbard, who was elected to the Hawaii Board of Education.
It’s no wonder that longtime observers see Tulsi Gabbard’s steady climb from the Honolulu City Council to Congress as somehow connected to Butler.
Butler, a Kalani High School graduate and son of a prominent Kailua doctor, Willis, was a disciple of A.C. Bahkitevedanta Swami Prabhupad, who founded the International Society of Krishna Consciousness 1966. The group is better known in Hawaii as Hare Krishnas, and it was widespread throughout the country in the 1960s and ’70s. Its members were highly visible here — with their shaved heads and orange robes, they were often seen in Waikiki, chanting and soliciting contributions.
An internal power struggle eventually led Butler to break away from ISKCON in the early ‘70s and form his own Krishna community in Hawaii. The group has since swiftly expanded, reaching the mainland and as far as Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
By most accounts, the community was made up of a loose-knit collection of individuals who eschewed the street-begging and instead chanted in the privacy of their homes or makeshift worship centers. Over the years, they banded together to start a number of businesses, including Down to Earth grocery stores and a number of other health-food related businesses under a company called Healthy’s Inc. A portion of the proceeds from these businesses usually got diverted to support the movement.
Around 2012, after Tulsi Gabbard announced her candidacy for Congress, the focus of contributors to the Cult Education forum turned from Butler himself to Gabbard and efforts to pin down her ties to the guru. The result: More than 100 pages of the thread now document the activities of Gabbard and her parents, as well as her four siblings and associates.
Many, if not most, of the posts contain claims that are not backed up by supporting material, and they can be readily dismissed as rumors and innuendo — even patently false. The posts are all anonymous, written by people who go by names like “zombiefied,” “dharmabum” and “jaggedguru.” Even the forum’s regular contributors have acknowledged that its content needs to be viewed skeptically.
But Civil Beat was able to verify a number of the ties that link Butler to Gabbard’s family and associates:
• Kainoa Penaroza, who was appointed as Gabbard’s Washington, D.C.-based chief of staff last month despite his relative lack of political experience, is the son of Bill Penaroza, who was among a slate of 14 candidates running for a variety of offices in 1976 under an enigmatic political party called the Independents for Godly Government. The party’s connection to Butler was revealed in a three-part investigative series by the Honolulu Advertiser’s Walter Wright in 1977.
Penaroza, 30, and his wife, Alana Leigh Penaroza, who now works as Gabbard’s D.C. fundraiser, at one time lived in a Kailua property owned by Joseph Bismark, a Singapore-based businessman whose company, QI Group, bought Healthy’s in 2007.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Healthy’s owns Noni Connection, which lists Kainoa Penaroza as a director. Healthy’s does not own Noni’s, according to Mark Fergusson, Healthy’s chief executive officer.
• Abraham Williams, Gabbard’s 26-year-old fiancé, is a freelance cinematographer who also grew up in a family with strong ties to Butler. His mother, Anya Anthony, is listed as a registered agent of Wai Lana Productions LLC, a company named after Butler’s wife, Wai Lan, that runs www.wailana.com, which sells yoga instruction DVDs, clothing and other accessories.
Anthony is now the manager of Gabbard’s district office in Honolulu. Last month, Gabbard put a post on Facebook introducing Anthony as her soon-to-be mother-in-law. Gabbard noted that she had asked the Congressional Ethics Committee to determine if it was ethical for the congresswoman to employ her future mother-in-law. The committee signed off on Anthony’s continued employment, a committee spokesman confirmed to Civil Beat.
• Sunil Khemaney, who accompanied Gabbard on her December trip to India, is listed in Wai Lana Productions’ business registration records as its manager. He is also the director of Healthy’s and one of the trustees of Wai Lana Yoga Trust, whose mission is to “educate and teach the general public about the philosophy, moral standards and practices of yoga for the benefit of mankind.”
Khemaney is also the vice president of the East West Yoga Foundation, a nonprofit registered in Arizona. Chris Butler is listed in Arizona corporation records as its director, along with his wife, who is the president and director.• Mike Gabbard has long maintained that he’s a Catholic, not Hare Krishna. But, in Honolulu Magazine’s 2004 profile, he acknowledged his ties to Butler: “Although I’m not a member of the Science of Identity Foundation, I’m eternally thankful to Chris Butler … whose teachings of karma yoga (selfless service) and bhakti yoga (devotion to God) have brought me back to my Catholic roots and the fundamental teachings of Christ.”
Plenty of evidence suggests that there’s more to the story than that.
Multiple historical documents show that, at various points in the history of the Science of Identity Foundation, both Mike and Carol Gabbard sat on its board. According to various reports, they were bestowed Sanskrit names, “Krishna Katha das” and “Devahuti dasi,” respectively.
The Gabbards were also in attendance at at least one taping of Butler’s local TV show called “Jagad Guru Speaks,” which aired for several years in the 1980s and ’90s. In old footage of the show, they can be seen in the audience, listening and laughing as Butler lectured on spirituality.
The Gabbards also owned a vegetarian restaurant in Honolulu called the Natural Deli, housed inside a Down to Earth health food store on King Street. But they were forced to sell the restaurant to Down to Earth in 1992 after an anti-gay comment Mike Gabbard made on a local radio show triggered fervent protests.
Civil Beat found no evidence that Tulsi Gabbard is — or ever was — a Butler devotee. And we could find no record of her ever speaking publicly about it.
Gabbard has veered away from her earlier, conservative positions on social issues and voiced support for same-sex marriage — in stark contrast to her father, who still maintains his anti-gay stance, in line with Butler’s teachings.
In 2012, Gabbard told Civil Beat that the changes were part of her “gradual metamorphosis” on social issues brought on by her experience of seeing oppression in the Middle East during her military deployments. As for her father’s views, she said: “While my parents and I have a very close relationship, and we love each other and respect each other very much, we don’t agree on everything.”
When it comes to religious choice, Gabbard has openly described herself as a Hindu since her 2012 campaign. At her swearing-in ceremony in January 2013, she took the oath of office on the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture, and became the first Hindu in Congress.
“I chose to take the oath of office with my personal copy of the Bhagavad Gita because its teachings have inspired me to strive to be a servant-leader, dedicating my life in the service of others and to my country,” Gabbard said that day.
In a statement to Civil Beat sent Sunday, Gabbard touted the character of Hawaii voters for choosing “a Vaishnava Hindu” to represent them in Congress. “I make the most of every opportunity I get to tell the world that Hawaii is a place where people live the dream of Martin Luther King — where a person is judged not by the color of their skin, ethnicity, or religion,” she wrote.
Gabbard added: “Many Hindus have not felt they would be truly accepted for who they are, that they would have to change their religion. … My example and my words are very liberating to them, as I share with them and their children: ‘Every American has the right to run for political office or serve our community in any capacity he or she may choose.’”
“It probably has reached a point where it is to her benefit to start opening up and talking more frankly about this.” — University of Hawaii political science professor Colin Moore
Still, Gabbard’s conspicuous silence on her family’s ties to Butler — especially after the many times it’s come up in public discussions — has only made her detractors more suspicious.
But, even if Gabbard were a Butler devotee, does it matter? As Honolulu Weekly, in its 1992 profile of then-U.S. Senate candidate Rick Reed, put it: “Hey, candidates with a covert religious right-wing social agenda are a dime a dozen these days, even if most of them are doing it in the name of Christ, not Krishna.”
By and large, this question is met with a collective head-scratching. Beyond the vague notion of transparency, none of the people Civil Beat has interviewed, or even the Gabbard skeptics on the Cult Education forum, can point to any nefarious plot being concocted by Butler or offer an articulate explanation as to why Gabbard’s constituents should be alarmed by Butler’s potential influence on the congresswoman.
But that hasn’t stopped them from looking for evidence of a secret agenda. And there’s been no shortage of material for them to examine in recent months, given that Gabbard’s profile on the national stage has been rising to a new level — on the back of her unconventional, and often controversial, policy positions. She has made multiple appearances on cable and network TV news programs and conducts frequent interviews with the national and international press.
To some, all this attention to Gabbard’s faith is troubling. In fact, they have been arguing that the whole idea of examining Butler’s influence reeks of religious bigotry.
Historically speaking, they may have that argument on their side. After all, the minority faiths of politicians — be it Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, Joe Lieberman’s Judaism or John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism — have at times been singled out and met with bigoted backlash.
Gabbard experienced this firsthand in the run-up to the 2012 campaign when her GOP opponent, Kawika Crowley, told CNN that Gabbard’s Hinduism “doesn’t align with the constitutional foundation of the U.S. government.”
But others argue that discussing the religious identities of public officials and political candidates, particularly those on the national stage, has long been considered fair game.
And the questions, fair or not, are piling up. University of Hawaii political science professor Colin Moore says it might not make sense for Gabbard to keep her silence much longer.
“There comes a point where it begins to look more and more suspicious than perhaps it already is,” Moore said. “With this issue, it probably has reached a point where it is to her benefit to start opening up and talking more frankly about this, because this isn’t likely going away.”
John Hart, a longtime political pundit who chairs the communications department at Hawaii Pacific University, also points out that Gabbard’s recent criticism of Obama’s refusal to label the Islamic State as “Islamic extremists” bolsters the argument for those demanding transparency.
“Representative Gabbard has argued publicly on the ISIS issue that we need to consider religious affiliations to understand what we’re dealing with,” Hart said. “If that’s the case, then we shouldn’t be surprised to see that some people are going to apply that same standard” to her own faith.
Civil Beat reporters Chad Blair and Nick Grube contributed to this report.