Utah's high court weighs future of the polygamous sect trust
Even as they fought to keep a property trust once controlled by Warren Jeffs in government hands at the Utah Supreme Court Wednesday, state attorneys argued taxpayer money shouldn't go toward managing it.
And while Utah Solicitor General Bridget Romano faced tough questioning from the justices on who should foot the management bill in the massive case, the reception was friendlier on the issue of who should control the polygamous sect trust.
"At the end of the day, I would ask this court to determine that the puzzle is complete and tells a single answer," Romano said. She argued a 2010 Utah Supreme Court decision dismissing a Constitutional challenge to the takeover because the sect waited too long should stand.
Attorneys for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, meanwhile, tried to convince the justices their claim that the state violated the separation of church and state is too important to dismissed because of a three-year delay in challenging the takeover.
That would mean "the government can exercise illegal power if it's not timely challenged," said FLDS attorney Rod Parker. If the justices side with him, it could prompt a federal appeals court to uphold a lower court's decision giving the trust back to the FLDS. Wednesday's hearing came after the appeals court asked the Utah Supreme Court to clarify the effect of their 2010 ruling.
But Justice Thomas Lee pointed out the wait appears to have been a strategic move.
It was "not just a delay, but a conscious decision to sit on the sidelines and 'answer them nothing,' " Lee said referencing Jeffs' instructions to his followers. It was one of many assertive questions the high court had for Parker. "On that basis, an egg had been scrambled in the reformation of the trust."
The state took over the trust amid allegations of mismanagement by FLDS trustees in 2005 and reformed it to remove religious considerations from its bylaws.
Based on that change, a group of young men known as the "Lost Boys" who say Jeffs and other leaders tossed them out of the group with little but the clothes on their backs settled a lawsuit against the trust for a nominal sum and the understanding the trust "could no longer be used to abuse children," said their attorney, Roger Hoole. Hoole said the communal property trust, which holds nearly all the homes and business in the sect's home base along the Utah-Arizona border, was used as a club by FLDS leaders to keep people in line.
Along with reforming the trust, the state appointed accountant Bruce Wisan to manage it. He set about trying to divide the assets, but in 2008, following a huge police raid on their settlement in Texas, the FLDS started fighting the takeover in court.
As part of the litigation, Wisan was barred from selling trust assets, which were supposed to pay him, his attorneys and employees. As of September, the unpaid bills topped $5.5 million and a judge granted Wisan's request for the state to pay them until the court orders are lifted and Wisan can sell property.
The state is fighting that order, arguing that the unpaid bills aren't the state's fault, that the judge didn't have the right to force taxpayer money from the Legislature, and that other litigants should share the cost burden.
Wisan attorney Jeff Shields disagreed.
"I don't think the professionals should run the risk here. I think the state should," he said.
No immediate deadline was set for opinions on the issues, though there is an Aug. 1 deadline on the unpaid-bill question.
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Two polygamous sect property trust issues
The Utah Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on two issues related to the United Effort Plan trust, which was taken over by the state in 2005.
1 • Whether justices' 2010 decision dismissing an FLDS challenge to the takeover should prevent any other courts including a federal judge who later ruled the takeover was illegal from considering the case. The answer could determine if the trust stays in state hands or goes back to the sect.
2 • If the state of Utah should pay more than $5.5 million in unpaid bills owed to the accountant who has been managing the trust and his employees.
Ex-FLDS spokesman wins default judgment
A former spokesman for the polygamous sect led by Warren Jeffs has won a default judgment in a civil lawsuit accusing church leaders of burglarizing his office as retribution for speaking against the imprisoned leader.
A 5th District Court judge awarded Jessop and his business nearly $30 million after leaders Lyle Jeffs and John Wayman failed to respond, according to an order issued Monday.
Jessop said the leaders orchestrated a break-in to take back evidence he'd been using to coordinate Warren Jeffs' defense and to trash the building. He broke with the leadership shortly before Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 15, who he took as plural wives.
"It went from being a religion â¦ to being really nothing more than a cartel," Jessop said.