James Huntsman will be deposed as tithing lawsuit against LDS Church proceeds

In first court hearing on the dispute, federal judge sets Aug. 30 as the date when he may decide whether to throw out the case.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) James Huntsman's lawsuit against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints alleges the Utah-based faith used tithing funds to build the City Creek Center shopping mall, shown here in November 2020, in downtown Salt Lake City.

Los Angeles • James Huntsman’s headline-grabbing lawsuit accusing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of fraud and seeking to recover millions of dollars in personal tithing will live on — at least for another two months.

That’s when a federal judge could decide to toss out the case, but not before the 50-year-old Huntsman, brother of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., is deposed under oath and has the chance to provide documentation of his charitable gifts.

On Monday in Los Angeles, U.S. District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson ordered attorneys for both sides to prepare for an Aug. 30 summary judgment hearing at which he could opt to dismiss the lawsuit — as the Utah-based church has requested — or allow it to proceed.

Huntsman’s lawsuit accuses Latter-day Saint leaders of fraud, alleging they “repeatedly and publicly” misled him and other church members about billions of dollars in donations, including at least $5 million of his own tithing — contributions that were solicited for missionary work, temple construction and charitable projects. The former Utahn, who now lives in California, alleges the church “brazenly misappropriated” chunks of those charitable funds and used them for commercial purposes instead.

(Courtesy photo) James Huntsman

Church officials have called Huntsman’s assertions “baseless” and insist they have used tithing appropriately. They have sought to portray the founder and owner of film distributor Blue Fox Entertainment as a disgruntled former Latter-day Saint, who resigned his membership in 2020, and now wants his charitable contributions returned.

If Huntsman recoups his tithing, he has stated he wants the money to go to groups “marginalized by the church’s teachings and doctrines, including … charities supporting LGBTQ, African American and women’s rights.”

Attorneys declined to comment Monday to a reporter about the dispute — with one key exception. When asked if Latter-day Saint leaders had misled members on tithing, as Huntsman asserts, Rick Richmond, a lawyer hired by the church with the Los Angeles law firm Jenner & Block, responded, “No.”

Huntsman, a son of the late Utah industrialist-philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr., was also present for Monday’s 15-minute hearing, the first since he filed his suit in March. He also declined to comment.

He has demanded a jury trial in a case that draws heavily from allegations made in a separate complaint filed with U.S. tax authorities in late 2019.

David Nielsen, a former investment portfolio manager for the church’s Ensign Peak Advisors, stated in a whistleblower complaint to the IRS that Latter-day Saint leaders held amassed $100 billion in a reserve account intended for — but never spent on — charity in potential violation of tax laws. He accused the faith of steering up to $2 billion toward commercial projects, including the upscale City Creek Center shopping mall in downtown Salt Lake City.

Huntsman has said in his lawsuit that he “discovered” the church’s alleged fraud via Nielsen’s complaint, saying the whistleblower had “bravely lifted the veil” on the faith’s financial activities.

The church’s governing First Presidency has maintained that the global faith of 16.6 million-plus members “complies with all applicable law governing our donations, investments, taxes and reserves.”

Money used for City Creek, the faith has stated, came not from tithing, but rather from “commercial entities owned by the church” and the “earnings of invested reserve funds.”

There has been no public confirmation that federal authorities are actively pursuing the whistleblower complaint.

Editor’s note • James Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune’s board of directors.