A federal judge on Wednesday ruled on the most contentious issue in the upcoming food-stamp fraud trial of former polygamous sect leader Lyle Jeffs — what the law says. 

Judge Ted Stewart, in a written ruling, said the jury will be told that only people authorized to receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) may use those benefits to purchase food. 

However, there is no prohibition on donating that food once it’s purchased, Stewart ruled, and he will not tell the jury otherwise. 

The ruling appears to most benefit Jeffs, a former bishop in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He is charged with counts of conspiracy to defraud the SNAP program and conspiracy to launder money.

Jeffs’ attorney, Kathryn Nester, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Utah, both declined to comment Wednesday. 

image courtesy KSFY Lyle Jeffs is seen on Thursday, June 15, 2017, after his arrest in South Dakota.
image courtesy KSFY Lyle Jeffs is seen on Thursday, June 15, 2017, after his arrest in South Dakota.

The ruling is similar to one Stewart issued late last year when Jeffs still had 10 co-defendants. That ruling spurred prosecutors to offer plea bargains to those co-defendants. Nine of them resolved their cases by pleading guilty to a lone felony or misdemeanor count that did not require more jail time, probation or restitution. Charges against another defendant was dismissed. 

There was no indication Wednesday that the latest ruling from Stewart would change federal prosecutors’ view toward Jeffs, who was identified from the first indictment as the government’s primary target. 

Prosecutors contend Jeffs pressured or ordered FLDS members to turn over the food they purchased with SNAP debit cards to the church or to swipe the cards at two church-controlled groceries so the benefits could be converted to cash. 

Prosecutors also had asked Stewart to issue jury instructions saying that donating food purchased through SNAP is against the law or regulations. 

Jeffs’ attorneys have characterized the transfer of benefits and food as consecrations, and compared it to someone from a more mainstream faith taking a covered dish to a church potluck.

At a hearing in October, Jeffrey Cohen, the deputy associate administrator of the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees SNAP from Washington, D.C., testified that while nothing allows for pooling of SNAP benefits prior to purchase, there’s no rule against sharing the food after its been purchased. 

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Members of the FLDS Church walk to Federal Court in Salt Lake City Tuesday Oct. 3 for a two-day hearing to hear testimony from FLDS members and government witnesses to determine whether defendants have a religious right to share their food stamp benefits.
Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Members of the FLDS Church walk to Federal Court in Salt Lake City Tuesday Oct. 3 for a two-day hearing to hear testimony from FLDS members and government witnesses to determine whether defendants have a religious right to share their food stamp benefits.

Defense attorneys highlighted Cohen’s testimony in their briefs. Stewart cited it Wednesday. 

“ ... under the government’s interpretation, a SNAP recipient could face criminal prosecution if they donated cookies to a school bake sale that were made from food obtained through the use of SNAP benefits ... ” Stewart wrote. 

Jury selection is to begin Oct. 19 with the trial to begin four days later.

Jeffs is the last of 11 defendants originally indicted in the case. Jeffs also is charged with one count of failing to appear in court. He absconded from pre-trial release in June 2016 and was on the lam for almost a year before his arrest in Yankton, S.D. His defense attorneys have filed a motion asking for a separate trial on the failing to appear count. Stewart has yet to rule on that issue.