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Sac Bee 11497

 Ananda is punished by judge: Unrefuted testimony against church leader will be allowed in suit

By Wayne Wilson

Bee Staff Writer

(Published Nov. 4, 1997)


REDWOOD CITY -- A jury will be permitted to hear unrefuted testimony that J. Donald Walters sexually abused and exploited some female followers during his 29 years as leader of the Nevada City-based Ananda Church of God Realization.

The ruling stems from a civil lawsuit by former employee Anne-Marie Bertolucci, who claims Walters used his standing as Ananda's leader to gain access to vulnerable women, exploit them and create an organization hostile to them. Bertolucci seeks unspecified damages.
As punishment for stealing documents from opposing counsel's trash and concealing that fact for two years, Ananda's legal team was slapped Monday with sanctions that could seriously jeopardize its defense of Bertolucci's claims of civil fraud and wrongful termination.

Superior Court Judge Lawrence T. Stevens, who is presiding over the trial in San Mateo County, said he stopped short of entering a default judgment against Ananda because it would not be fair to a third defendant, Danny Levin, a senior minister who apparently had nothing to do with the theft.

Specifically, Stevens ruled that Ananda will be precluded at trial from "challenging or introducing any evidence on issues pertinent to Walters' past sexual conduct."
There will be no cross-examination of Bertolucci on that issue, nor will the defense be permitted to challenge evidence offered by a number of other women who have made similar claims.

And Ananda will not be allowed to bring in young female witnesses who say they never experienced any form of sexual harassment or abuse from Walters.
Ananda, which includes 70 meditation groups worldwide, is an alternative spiritual movement emphasizing meditation and simple living.
Attorney Gordon L. Rockhill, who is representing all the defendants, objected to the judge's sanctions as "inconsistent and unfair," particularly to Walters and Levin, who is alleged to have had an affair with Bertolucci.
Evidence produced at pretrial hearings revealed that a member of Ananda's legal team, not one of the trial attorneys, commissioned a private investigator to rifle through the trash of Michael J. Flynn, one of Bertolucci's lawyers.
The "Dumpster diver" was caught and ultimately was ordered by an appellate court to reveal the identity of his employer. The investigator identified Ananda, and when Ananda turned over the documents to Judge Stevens, he learned they contained "significant confidential work product."
Although both trial counsel insisted they had not seen the material and declared that it played no role in their preparation of the case, Stevens ruled that the theft had been arranged by "an integral part of the defense team."
He said possession of the information by Ananda "basically brought a strategic advantage to the Ananda church." The sanctions, Stevens said, would "balance the books." Jury selection will begin today.