A lawsuit alleges leaders of a Utah polygamous sect bilked federal student aid programs by instructing teenagers to omit their fathers and other sources of income when applying for benefits.
He directed some of his own children — the plaintiffs estimate he has 27 wives and more than 300 offspring — to seek more financial aid than they would have otherwise been entitled to, the suit cites one of his daughters as saying, and when the assistance exceeded what the student needed to attend college, the sect kept the proceeds.
The suit says sect members might have obtained “tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars” through false applications. The plaintiffs estimate 40 to 50 children from the sect were college age in each of the past six years.
The lawsuit was filed May 24 in Salt Lake City’s federal court by Mary and Bryan Nelson. A week later, the two were profiled on the CBS program “Whistleblower” for their work in exposing fraud at Washakie Renewable Energy, the biofuel company operated by two of Mary Nelson’s first cousins. Those cousins and two others have since pleaded guilty to crimes that include fraud, conspiracy, money laundering and witness tampering in a plot to pocket federal energy tax credits.
Mary Nelson grew up in the sect and names her father, David Kingston, as a defendant. The third plaintiff is Michelle Michaels, who the complaint says left the sect in 2017 rather than become a spiritual wife to a cousin who has nine wives. That cousin is also a defendant in the lawsuit.
Kent Johnson, a spokesman for the Davis County Cooperative Society (DCCS), which also is named as a defendant, said members are “strongly” encouraged to “strictly adhere to every legal guideline” when applying for financial aid.
“By our latest survey,” his statement said, “the majority of DCCS college students were not using government-funded financial aid, including many who would qualify if they had applied. Regardless, all those applying should do so legally.”
After the lawsuit was filed, attorneys representing the U.S. government asked a judge to seal the case, according to entries that can still be found on a webpage maintained by DocketBird.com, a commercial site that collects and sells court records. A copy of the lawsuit also is available there, though no other filings in the case are. No record of the case is available at the court clerk’s office.
The plaintiffs filed what is called a qui tam lawsuit in which whistleblowers assist in pursuing individuals who commit fraud against the government. If the case succeeds, the whistleblowers can collect perhaps millions of dollars from the damages or fines paid by the defendants. Such lawsuits typically are sealed to give the government time to investigate the allegations.
It’s unclear how much if any investigating has happened in the almost seven months since the lawsuit was filed. No one has been criminally charged. A statement from the only higher education institution mentioned in the lawsuit, Salt Lake Community College, said it has not received any subpoenas or inquiries.
Johnson said neither he nor any other representatives of the cooperative society were aware of the lawsuit until contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune recently for comment. Messages sent to Paul and David Kingston as well as representatives of the Latter Day Church of Christ, the Kingston Group’s religious organization, and other named defendants in the lawsuit were not returned.
Attorneys for the Nelsons and Michaels also did not return messages seeking comments. Their legal team includes a Boston law firm with expertise in qui tam lawsuits.
Jeanne Markey, a partner at the Philadelphia law firm of Cohen Milstein and co-chair of a group there that handles cases of whistleblowers reporting fraud against the government, reviewed the complaint at the request of The Tribune. She said the lawsuit is “well plead” and noted there have been previous successful qui tam cases in student aid programs.
“This is an indication that an experienced qui tam firm looked at the facts,” Markey said, “and realized it was a case that was worth pursuing.”
Off to school
Rates of college attendance that meet or exceed the Utah average have been a point of pride in the Kingston Group, whose members have offered such statistics to counter the stereotype of children from polygamy, especially girls, being uneducated with no opportunity for self-improvement. The plaintiffs argue a plan to defraud such well-known student aid benefits as Pell Grants and the Ford and Perkins loans began in 2004 or 2005.
That’s when Nicole Mafi, one of Paul Kingston’s daughters, says in the lawsuit she was called into a meeting of recent high school graduates to discuss going to college.
“Mrs. Mafi recalls Paul Kingston telling the children who attended that meeting that The Order was going to be ‘trying out something new,’” the lawsuit says.
He told the children they would all be applying for financial aid, enrolling at SLCC and majoring in business administration, the lawsuit cites Mafi as saying. She then met with two women who helped her complete financial aid forms.
Mafi’s mother is Paul Kingston’s fifth wife, yet when filling out the aid forms, the woman advising her told Mafi not to submit anything about her father, according to the lawsuit.
“Shortly after that meeting,” the complaint continues, “Mrs. Mafi had another meeting with Paul Kingston during which he made sure that she had completed her [applications] and told her that she could only attend college if her grades were sufficient to qualify for financial aid.”
The lawsuit includes a copy of what’s alleged to be an agreement children had to sign before going to college. It includes a provision they obtain financial aid.
The lawsuit says Mafi received an aid package that exceeded her tuition. She was instructed, the complaint adds, to deposit the excess funds at a South Salt Lake office building, where the sect’s bank is located.
“Mrs. Mafi followed Paul Kingston’s instructions,” the lawsuit states, “and never again saw those funds.”
Paul Kingston is one of eight men named as defendants in the lawsuit. The other seven are brothers or sons of Paul Kingston. The plaintiffs estimate the eight combine to have 106 wives and 911 children.
The plaintiffs also contend these eight defendants have significant wealth acquired through the money and labor followers contribute to the Kingston Group and the rent the defendants charge their wives.
Michaels and Mary Nelson describe similar experiences with their financial aid applications and awards. They and Mafi also accuse a sect-affiliated tax preparer of falsifying tax returns for Kingston Group members to report lower incomes, partly to boost student financial aid.
Painting a picture
The lawsuit describes crimes and issues within the Kingston Group that have no direct relationship to the student aid applications. That includes the fraud within Washakie Renewable Energy as well as what the plaintiffs allege was a separate scheme by sect members to bilk a U.S. Department of Agriculture program to provide free lunches to child and adult day cares.
Markey said the plaintiffs are making the case to a judge that the Kingston Group is a cult and criminal enterprise rather than a religion.
“They’re trying to paint a picture,” Markey said, “give the judge and, frankly, the defendants, when they see the complaint, give them the context, which is to the effect, ‘We know what's up. We really know what your game is.’”
In qui tam cases, the federal government can either join the plaintiffs in recouping losses and pursuing damages and fines, or let the plaintiffs prosecute the lawsuit on their own.
The lawsuit from Michaels and the Nelsons asserts the defendants are liable for up to $27 million in damages and another $20 million in penalties.
The lawsuit does not allege any wrongdoing by SLCC. Chuck Lepper, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management, said that no review is planned at this time. He said the college has controls to ensure compliance with federal aid guidelines.
“At a minimum,” the statement said, “two employees review every student file flagged for verification to ensure quality assurance in our processes.”
Complete statement from Davis County Cooperative Society:
For decades, the DCCS has encouraged its members to be well-educated, well-informed, independent thinkers.
We strongly encourage all members to strictly adhere to every legal guideline when operating their businesses including day cares and when applying for all need-based assistance, including financial aid for students. By our latest survey, the majority of DCCS college students were not using government funded financial aid, including many who would qualify if they had applied. Regardless, all those applying should do so legally.
In the past, we have worked closely with DWS, DOE and financial aid counselors at local colleges and universities to ensure proper training and that all applications adhere to every guideline. We will continue to do so.
Nevertheless, waves of audits of State taxes, Federal taxes, corporate taxes, DWS, SNAP, WIC and regulatory compliance in day cares among other things, have been levied against individuals and corporations with known or suspected ties to the DCCS. Over the last four years, these audits have occurred for DCCS members at a rate 9.5 times higher than the average population. Each time turning up no significant violations or nothing at all.
This is nothing more than a continued attempt in a long history to keep DCCS members from accessing education and services every other U.S. citizen is legally entitled to. Our goal of an educated, well-informed population goes against the popular narrative for our culture and there is a concerted effort to keep this false narrative alive. Businesses and individuals have the autonomy to choose and operate as they see fit as evidenced by a huge diversity of industry and management styles among members. No one would accept the guilty by association view in any other culture that has been adopted by the public for ours.
Fortunately, our population has already attained a higher graduation rate for high school and associates degrees for men and women in the DCCS. Comparable graduation rates have been attained by our bachelor’s and advanced degree students when compared to the state of Utah and the U.S., despite an uphill battle of active discrimination against our students.