Dalai Lama Inc.

Making hay from His Holiness

Many hands were clapping back in 1993, when the Dalai Lama stood before enthralled followers at the El Conquistador Resort. There were even chuckles when he wagged a genial finger at grateful supplicants.

But a few supplicants, perhaps, were more grateful than others. Put another way: Richard Gere isn't alone in recognizing the Dalai Lama's market potential. For example, one of those 1993 followers co-authored a best-selling book with the Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel laureate. Another tapped his name to pitch anger workshops. Two more paid themselves tidy salaries to organize that long-ago visit, and later bankrolled their own Buddhist shindig with the proceeds.

Next week, the Dalai Lama has a return engagement, this time at the luxurious J.W. Marriott Starr Pass Resort. Between 1993 and today, however, a few karmic chickens have come home to roost.

"There are serious questions that need to be addressed around the people who are running the show," says longtime local Buddhist James Potter. "And that's what it is essentially now--a show."

Arizona Teachings, Inc. is handling the Dalai Lama's visit, as it did in 1993. The nonprofit is a spin-off from Arizona Friends of Tibet, and charged with raising funds, of which there are plenty: Tickets for this year's three-day event start at $285. But Potter alleges that back in 1993, Arizona Teaching's top dogs--Claude d'Estrée and Ken Bacher--abused surplus donations earmarked for charity. Potter and his wife, Gale, produced the 1993 fund-raising brochure, and it read thus: "Donors will be directly supporting the overall expenses of His Holiness' visit, as well as a donation to His Holiness to continue his many charitable projects."

There's no mention of two guys helping themselves to a little gravy. "Gale and I had a very specific problem with the fundraising brochures," James Potter says. "But we were blown off. When the Dalai Lama begins to come close, people literally get stars in their eyes. And they don't want to look at the details of what's going on."

So the Potters gave it a rest. Until last spring, that is, when they noticed that Ken Bacher was now spearheading the Dalai Lama's redux. "That's when I finally decided to take this issue public," Potter says. "As a result, we've been shunned by our friends. But this has been eating at me for 12 years."

Claude d'Estrée now teaches at the University of Denver and didn't return several calls seeking comment. But the Tucson Weekly did reach Ken Bacher, currently the UA's Director of Development and Foundation Relations. "There have been what might be considered--and I would agree with--abuses in the past," Bacher says. Still, "I've worked with nonprofits for a long, long time, and I've always believed that nonprofits should be nonprofit."

(Bacher, on behalf of himself and d'Estrée, sent a letter to Weekly publisher Tom Lee and editor Jimmy Boegle, requesting to see a pre-publication copy of this article "to assure that there are no factual errors in the story being prepared." Boegle left Bacher a telephone message denying the request. The Weekly has a longstanding policy against showing anybody articles before publication.)

Arizona Teachings was founded in 1992 by d'Estrée, Bacher, Tucson attorney Leonard Scheff and Phoenix psychiatrist Howard Cutler. Scheff now runs "Transforming Anger" workshops, advertised on the Web as emanating "from the teachings of the Dalai Lama." And Cutler later joined the Dalai Lama to write The Art of Happiness.

After ATI's creation, Scheff arranged salaries for d'Estrée and Bacher, totaling $81,662, to cover roughly a year's work. But Potter calls that ludicrous. "Anybody who has organized an event like this knows that it doesn't take two people a year to do it," he says. "Maybe a week or two, but not a year."

According to ATI's 1993 tax return, the nonprofit eventually took in $406,649 from the Dalai Lama's visit. After expenses, $30,099 remained. Unbeknownst to donors, however, that surplus helped bankroll ATI's "Nature of Reality" teaching a year later at the El Conquistador.

Bacher says ATI received permission to tap those funds from the Office of Tibet in New York. The office, U.S. headquarters for Tibet's government in exile, didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

According to several experts, however, permission from New York still doesn't get ATI off the hook. "If they took that money and used it for a purpose other than for which it was intended or solicited, it would be unethical," says Paulette Maehara, president of the Association of Fundraising Professionals in Alexandria, Va.

And Jack Marshall, president of the influential business-consulting firm ProEthics, calls ATI's past practices "deceitful." He adds that simply obtaining permission from the Office of Tibet--instead of directly contacting donors--doesn't cut it. "That is an especially lame excuse," he says. "Fundraisers have to be completely upfront."

Unethical? Perhaps. But was it illegal? The Weekly posed that question to William Black, executive director of the Institute for Fraud Studies, at the University of Texas in Austin. Black says ATI's 1993 actions could constitute fraud "even if they didn't know there was going to be extra money. All they had to do is know that they solicited the money under one set of representations and were spending it contrary to those representations."

So who was minding the store back in 1993, as donations were shifting around? Leonard Scheff still represents ATI and declined to speak in detail about the funds.

But Peggy Hitchcock has more to say. A Mellon family heiress and grande dame of Tucson's counter-culture, Hitchcock was president of the Arizona Friends of Tibet in 1993, and remains on the board of directors. At first, she blames her "selective memory" for failing to recall specifics from that period. But those selective memories soon sharpen up. "I think they made some mistakes," she finally concedes. "All I can say is they have learned their lesson, whatever they did--and there may have been some improprieties."

Indeed, those potential "improprieties" were brought to Hitchcock's attention in a May 1993 letter from the ATI, months before the Dalai Lama's arrival. The letter noted that "thus far there are no 'profits!' In fact, to date there is little precedence for events such as this to have a surplus after the event." (In a preliminary budget issued nine months earlier, however, ATI predicted a total income of $265,000 to $327,500, and expenses totaling $275,726.) "It was our impression," the note continued, "that these donations were given freely and without 'strings attached' of any kind."

That letter was signed by Howard Cutler, Claude d'Estrée and Ken Bacher.

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