In an "extraordinary" and occasionally contentious exchange, a state court judge put Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff on the witness stand Friday to explain why the state hasn’t yet paid millions in past-due fees to the accountant in charge of a polygamous sect’s seized property trust.
Third District Judge Denise Lindberg questioned Shurtleff on what he’d done to comply with a court order to pay $5.6 million owed to the accountant appointed to oversee the trust after a 2005 state takeover.
"Your attorneys didn’t think my order was viable, that it was appealable," Lindberg said.
"Is that not our right?" Shurtleff replied, maintaining he had done everything he could to get the bills paid after the Utah Supreme Court denied his appeal. But his office doesn’t have the money now, he said. The payment will have to be allocated by the Utah Legislature in January. The money wouldn’t be available until the next fiscal year, in July 2013.
But that’s too long for people like attorney Jeff Shields, who works for accountant Bruce Wisan, and said he hasn’t had a paycheck in nine months.
"I don’t want to get too personal, but I’m close to my limit," Shields said. And there are still several lawsuits pending in the fight over control of the trust.
In the end, Lindberg appeared satisfied with Shurtleff’s approximately 30 minutes of testimony. She recommended that attorneys general in both Utah and Arizona take on some of the responsibilities for running the trust and fighting related litigation to reduce the burden and the bill.
"I’m just so glad you’re here, I really am," Lindberg told Shurtleff.
"I think I am, too," he replied.
Lindberg scheduled the hearing in response to a request filed last month by Wisan — the latest of his efforts to recoup the millions in legal fees and other unpaid debts from managing the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ communal property trust. Taken over by the state at Shurtleff’s instigation amid allegations of mismanagement by FLDS trustees, the approximately $114 million trust holds nearly all the land, homes and property in Colorado City, Ariz. and Hildale, Utah. Members still live and work on sect property.
Wisan was supposed to have been paid from the trust itself but has been barred from selling property since the FLDS sued to get the trust back in 2008. Lindberg ordered Shurtleff to help fill the financial hole in August 2011, saying the taxpayer money would be repaid when a court order is lifted and Wisan can sell property again.
But when — and if — that might happen is still an open question. If the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver upholds a ruling declaring the takeover unconstitutional and handing the trust back to the FLDS, that repayment might not come. A recent Utah Supreme Court ruling makes it likely the state will win its appeal and the trust will stay under Wisan’s control, but the appeals court hasn’t yet made a final decision.
Meanwhile, the question remains as to whether the Legislature will approve the funding request in January.
"I think it’s very unclear what the Legislature is going to do," said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City. "The big question is how much, if anything, will be allocated by the Legislature."
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