A federal magistrate judge on Thursday recommended a Hildale company and its president be ordered to provide names, ages and contact information for every person who helped harvest pecans at the Southern Utah Pecan Ranch last December, saying she found claims that the information was unknown "disingenuous."
Magistrate Judge Evelyn Furse also recommended that Brian Jessop, president of Paragon Contractors Corp., be ordered to provide the name of the church leader then in place when an estimated 1,400 school-age children and their parents participated in the pecan harvest at the Southern Utah Pecan Ranch in Hurricane. Jessop is a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a polygamous sect based in Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz. The children and their parents also are reportedly members of the sect, as is the unidentified church bishop.
The U.S. Department of Labor began a child labor investigation of the nut gathering operation because it took place during school hours and allegedly involved underage children. It went to court in April after the company failed to provide requested information about each person who participated. In an interview with Dale Barlow, who acted as Paragon's agent in arranging the harvest, the department learned that between 2008 and 2010 as many as 300 school-age FLDS children participated in annual pecan harvests at the ranch. In 2011, Barlow estimated the number of children who participated at 600.
During a hearing held in May, Jessop said he did not know the information requested and thus could not be compelled to provide it. He also claimed that Paragon left ground nuts for the ranch to "do with as it pleased." Barlow testified in May that those who participated were "my ladies, my family, my girls" and "my friends."
But Furse noted the contract between the ranch and Paragon allowed the company to manage and operate the grove until all the pecans were harvested, without distinguishing between ground and tree nuts.
"Under these facts and the others elicited from Mr. Barlow and Mr. Jessop in the record, Mr. Jessop's claim not to know a single person who harvested ground nuts at [the ranch] lacks believability," Furse said in her decision. "Similarly, the context of Mr. Jessop's denial of knowledge about the name of the FLDS bishop in November and December makes clear Mr. Jessop simply did not want to provide that information."
Furse also said the court could "imagine a situation where an entity or person would intentionally not document its use of child labor," as Paragon has claimed. However, the labor department observed that children who participated in the harvest, which was filmed by CNN, handed in slips of paper as they left the ranch.
Furse recommended that if a U.S. District Court judge adopts her report, the company be given 30 days to make "an additional concerted effort" to locate appropriate documents and set a deadline of 45 days for Jessop and Paragon to meet with the labor department to answer questions related to the investigation.
Utah labor law exempts agricultural work from age limitations, but the government has previously stated that violations of the Fair Labor and Standards Act may still have occurred at the pecan farm.