The women suing Tim Ballard want Utah A.G. Sean Reyes to freeze Operation Underground Railroad’s assets

Attorneys say they want to make sure there’s money to collect if they win; OUR blasts it as a stunt that will hinder its anti-trafficking mission.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and Tim Ballard, founder of Operation Underground Railroad, pose for a photo at the group's "Share Our Light" gala in Salt Lake City, Saturday, November 5, 2016.

Lawyers for seven plaintiffs accusing Operation Underground Railroad founder Tim Ballard of sexual misconduct and assault — and the anti-trafficking nonprofit of being complicit — are asking Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to freeze OUR’s assets so their clients can collect damages if they prevail in their cases.

In a letter to Reyes dated Nov. 15, attorney Alan Mortensen pointed to previous cases in which victims alleging abuse have received multimillion-dollar judgments — including one in which Mortensen represented a victim of polygamous church leader Warren Jeffs. She was awarded a total of $16 million in damages from Jeffs, who is serving life in prison plus 20 years in Texas for sexually abusing two underage girls he married, and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints he heads.

In 2005, Utah’s then-attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, petitioned the courts to freeze the assets of the FLDS’ United Effort Plan Trust to protect the trust from being sold off while cases against Jeffs and several others were making their way through the courts.

As attorney general, Mortensen’s letter states, Reyes has the authority to dissolve nonprofits that “are not acting properly.”

“On behalf of our clients, we would ask you to intervene into these matters and freeze the assets of OUR,” Mortensen writes, “so that it is not judgment-proof by the time these brave women come to trial.”

If Reyes believes he has a conflict of interest that prevents him from acting, the letter asks that the attorney general designate a deputy to act.

In a statement Friday, Rich Piatt, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, said that it had received the letter and will review it. But the plaintiffs also have the ability to ask the court to freeze OUR assets. “From what we know, Mr. Mortensen’s clients could move for this relief on their own.”

Five women and a couple are suing Ballard in civil court for exploiting a “couples ruse” — in which Ballard and a woman would pose as a couple to go undercover to attempt to rescue trafficked kids — to manipulate, abuse and assault them.

This week, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Ballard is also the subject of a criminal investigation into whether he had sexually assaulted one of the women.

Through a spokesperson, Ballard has said he “vehemently denies” the allegations and would be vindicated in court.

Reyes has a long-standing friendship with Ballard and has frequently promoted OUR. When Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings and the FBI were investigating OUR, documents obtained through an open records request show that the attorney general’s office enacted a screen to keep Reyes from having any information on the case or influencing decisions made by the office.

That initial conflict of interest screen remains in effect, Piatt said, and another was enacted earlier this year.

In a statement, OUR said that it is “disappointed that the plaintiffs’ counsel continues to litigate this matter in public rather than accept our good faith efforts to resolve this dispute amicably.”

The organization said OUR will defend itself against “attempts to spread false, defamatory information through the media” and noted that freezing OUR assets without the group being able to defend itself in court would be unconstitutional and “further prevent the organization from doing its work to fight human trafficking.”

According to OUR’s 2022 tax filing, the organization had $71.5 million in assets and generated $29.3 million in revenue.