Sex and the Single Monk

In 2011, a community of Buddhist monks in Lowell announced plans to build one of the largest and grandest temples in the country. The $10 million structure would signal that the city’s Cambodian Americans had at last entered the mainstream. Then came accusations of financial impropriety and political backstabbing. And then came a secretly recorded video of a monk having sex.

By | Boston Magazine |
lowell monk sex video scandal

Maya Men (left) was accused of having sex with a monk. “If this happens in Cambodia,” said Sovann Khon (right), “the monk and the lady could be dead.” (Photograph by Mark Fleming)

To make that vision a reality, the group was going to have to raise $10 million. Maya Men, who is in her mid-forties, was charged with leading the temple’s fundraising drive, and by all accounts, she has done a fine job. A “money tree” ceremony she organized raised more than $128,000, an unheard-of amount for a single day, and she was also responsible for overseeing a program that sought to raise even more money by charging $100 each for 84,000 ceramic Buddhas to be engraved with donors’ names and placed on permanent display in the temple.

With fundraising under way in the summer of 2011, the CKBM settled on a location for the temple, 12 acres situated a quarter-mile from the north bank of the Merrimack River, and entered into negotiations with the owner, the wealthy property manager and developer Richard Boyle. The monks were so excited that in September, even before the deal was finalized, they and their lay associates began clearing brush and dragging branches to a fire pit. Sambath Soum, a member of the temple project’s development executive committee, told me that the experience was profoundly moving. “It reminded me of back in Cambodia,” he said. “It brought back memories of the camp on the border. This is how we escaped the war. We cut down trees and made a camp, made an open pit fire. This brought people together…. It would be a new temple.”

Before long, however, city inspectors showed up and cited the group for clearing trees, having a fire pit, and erecting a tent without permits. In fact, it was growing increasingly clear that doing anything at all on the site, let alone building a massive temple, was going to be complicated. The land was a wetland, densely covered by red maple, white pine, blueberry bushes, and ferns, and it was well within the city’s floodplain. Adding to the problems, the residents’ association in the mostly white, middle-class neighborhood of Pawtucketville had grown alarmed by the project. The plans for the site were going to have to be approved by the state Department of Environmental Protection and endorsed by the local conservation commission, which was sympathetic to the concerns of the neighbors.

The CKBM, aware of what lay ahead, hired two well-connected local attorneys, Arthur Sullivan and the former state Senator Steven Panagiotakos, to work on the $1.25 million purchase of the land. Typically, the buyers of such a challenging piece of real estate seek some provision to ensure that the agreed-upon price is due only if they’re able to get the permits they’re after. But Sullivan told me that no such provision was included in the deal, and that the CKBM seemed eager to get the whole thing done. The transaction was finalized in December 2011, and included a notable wrinkle. Boyle, the seller, lent the CKBM the money to buy his land, and required just a $50,000 down payment. Boyle’s right-hand man, a lawyer named James Boumil, told me that Boyle has long been in the business of financing his real estate deals, including other ones in the Cambodian community. Not long after the land deal was finalized, Boumil began representing the monks as well. He insisted that the permitting issues have been overblown by critics of the CKBM project. “It’sall politics,” he said.

 

Whatever the questions about the permitting, the Cambodian community remained united behind the temple—with the exception of one faction that was well acquainted with the Venerable Sao Khon and his CKBM: his downstairs neighbors. For more than a decade, Khon and his congregation had maintained their headquarters in the Trairatanaram Temple in North Chelmsford, a three-story clapboard building near the western edge of Lowell. In 1999, Khon had the deed to the building transferred to the CKBM, a maneuver that set off a seven-year legal battle with the temple’s board. The building was ultimately divided into an “upstairs group”—the CKBM—and a “downstairs group,” the Trairatanaram board.

Thel Sar, a lay leader of the downstairs group, no longer uses the honorific when he refers to Khon, who is 79. “He’s like a gangster monk,” Sar, who is a probation officer, told me.

The upstairs group has lay leaders of its own, including Rithy Uong, the first Cambodian American to serve on the Lowell City Council, and a local Democratic power broker. They claimed to police that Dararith Ung, of the downstairs group, had spent more than $20,000 of the temple’s funds on personal expenses. (Speaking to the Lowell Sun, the downstairs temple claimed the money was a loan, and would be paid back.) In 1992, Ung became the first Cambodian police officer in Lowell, but he was kicked off the force in 2008 for making false statements to a superior officer and neglect of duty. Ung told me that his dismissal stemmed mostly from a personality conflict with the chief.

These men don’t spend a great deal of time at the temple, which is regularly occupied by the monks of the two congregations and their respective volunteers, usually older women who prepare the daily meals. They tend to avoid the politics of the place, but members of the downstairs congregation say they couldn’t help but notice when Maya Men started coming to the temple around 2009. She seemed to come and go as she pleased at the CKBM monastery, while they, in keeping with Buddhist dogma, avoided eye contact with the monks. Soon there was whispering about the relationship between Men and the monks, including the Venerable Sao Khon.

In October 2011, the downstairs congregation renewed the lawsuit against the upstairs group, and included a complaint originally filed with the state Attorney General’s Office that includes a scattershot of grievances. “It is believed she [Men] maintains a romantic relationship with Sao Khon (a monk),” the complaint to the AG stated, “and that she assists with the control of these monies and likely involved [sic] in the misappropriation of funds.”

 

Sam Meas, who is 41, lives in Haverhill, about half an hour to the north of Lowell. In 2010, he became the first Cambodian American to ever run for Congress. He was trounced in the Republican primary, but carries himself with an air of infectious confidence. Though Meas sat on the board overseeing the CKBM’s temple project, he didn’t begin involving himself in its day-to-day activities until he started to hear complaints from vendors claiming that they hadn’t been paid by the CKBM.

Meas told me that when he asked to see the group’s books, he was rebuffed by Maya Men. Finally, Samkhann Khoeun—who’d recruited Meas to serve on the board in the first place—showed him some of the records, and what Meas saw troubled him. He told me that there were multiple credit cards in the name of the Venerable Sao Khon, and that Men kept cash stored in two safes. Soon after, Meas learned that Men had moved into a house she’d bought not far from the temple site. How, he wondered, could a woman with no job, who acknowledged that she was on disability, afford the $250,000 home? The property, it turned out, had been purchased in the names of Men’s 21-year-old son and her nephew, with a mortgage provided by Richard Boyle. As for the $50,000 down payment, Men said, no temple money was used in the purchase.

Meas told me that he demanded an independent audit of the CKBM books, but that Kheoun refused to submit to one. In August 2012, Meas authored an “options of last resort” document. Agree to the audit, he wrote, or he would go to the press and the state Attorney General’s Office. “Our financial book must be open and transparent so that we can instill the trust and faith in the vision and goals of CKBM and collectively can raise the money to build our Vatt Khmer Lowell,” Meas wrote in an email to several of the board and committee members. Meas and Khon crossed paths not long after. “He called me a devil,” Meas told me, “and said I shouldn’t be coming here and creating a revolution. For a monk to say that—his words, his actions, the way he pointed his finger. It impugned my integrity, my principles.”