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FLDS argue for more representation in trust case

Published December 1, 2010 10:31 am

Courts • Sect bishops seek control of communal property.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Polygamous sect leaders on Tuesday asked the Utah Supreme Court to give them a greater legal voice in the trust that controls the sect's communal property.

Lawyers for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints argued that two of the church's bishops should be allowed to intervene in the United Effort Plan Trust litigation, saying those men would represent the interests of church members.

But lawyers for Utah and Arizona and the accountant appointed to oversee the trust argued that would open the floodgates for others to join the case.

"It'll be chaos if the interveners are allowed to come in," said Jeff Shields, who represents trust fiduciary Bruce Wisan.

The state in 2005 took over the trust, which controls virtually all the property in the primarily FLDS towns of Hildale and Colorado City, located on the Utah-Arizona border, and in Bountiful, British Columbia, after allegations of mismanagement.

The FLDS church initially did not participate in the UEP case, but in 2008 stepped up to protest the sale of Berry Knoll Farm, calling it the community's bread basket and a future temple site. The original motion to intervene was filed then by three men who were using the land. Added later were Short Creek Bishop Lyle Jeffs, brother of FLDS prophet Warren S. Jeffs, and James Oler, bishop in the sect's Canadian settlement.

No acting member of the sect has been a party to the proceedings. But on Nov. 16, 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg allowed FLDS President Wendell Nielsen to intervene in future trust proceedings.

The state, which is also charged with watching out for the good of the church members, says Nielsen's voice is enough and that additional sect members would further complicate an already tangled case.

With that in mind, Supreme Court Justice Thomas Lee asked whether the problem might still be resolved in the lower court.

"Shouldn't we dismiss the appeal ... because it's not ripe?" he asked.

FLDS attorney Stephen Clark argued the conditions placed on Nielsen in order for him to participate — such as disclosing all records relating to the trust — were too limiting.

He said Nielsen is solely a religious leader, and the members of the sect also need representation from people who also have secular responsibilities, such as the bishops.

If the appeal is successful, FLDS attorney Rod Parker said the bishops would seek to tackle what they see as problems with the administration of the trust, including the still-pending sale of the farm.

Church members "have a right to due process, a right to be heard," Parker said.

But Utah Assistant Attorney General Tim Bodily said that if the justices side with the FLDS, little would change.

"They'll be more litigation, more attorney filings, but I don't think it will change the outcome," he said.

The justices will issue their ruling in the case at a later date.

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com