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Munchies

A Polygamist Cult Has Been Running a Major Food Stamp Scam

Leaders of a polygamous community there were among eleven people charged with food-stamp fraud and money laundering.

by Alex Swerdloff
Feb 27 2016, 6:00pm

Photo by Khampha Bouaphanh/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images

eFood stamp fraud comes in all different shapes and sizes. After all, who can forget the New York City officials who started a business selling Red Bulls that they illegally bought with food stamps? But a new case that has just cropped up in the unlikely hinterland of the Arizona-Utah border may very well take the cake.

According to an Associated Press report, leaders of a polygamous community there were among 11 people charged with food-stamp fraud and money laundering. Those arrested include top-ranking leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—a fundamentalist denomination of Mormonism. Followers of that religion believe having multiple wives is totally cool—in fact, it buys you a ticket to heaven, in their humble opinions. The sect should not be confused with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which renounced the practice of polygamy at the turn of the century.

READ MORE: More than a Million Americans Are About to Lose Access to Food Stamps

The sect has seen legal troubles in the past—pretty damn big ones. In fact, the sect's former leader, Warren Jeffs, is currently serving a life sentence plus 20 years in Texas for child sexual assault. He claimed the girls involved were simply a few of his 80 or so brides. He told his 12- and 14-year-old victims that having sex with him was simply a "heavenly" or "celestial" session. The group is also facing allegations of civil-rights and labor-law violations. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Southern Poverty Law Center calls them a "white supremacist, homophobic, antigovernment, totalitarian cult."

Investigators got wind of the alleged food-stamp scam when they noticed that two small convenience stores were racking up enormous purchases, worthy of a Wal-Mart or Costco. Turns out, according to the feds, that residents of the religious community were scanning their food stamp cards without actually receiving any items in return. The proceeds were used to buy things like a John Deere loader and a Ford truck.

READ MORE: A Fun-Hating Senator Wants You to Stop Using Your Food Stamps at Strip Clubs

Those arrested include Lyle Jeffs and Seth Jeffs, brothers of the now-imprisoned Warren Jeffs. Lyle Jeffs is known to run the day-to-day operations of the polygamous community in Hildale, Utah, while Warren Jeffs handles legal and tax issues for the group. Both pleaded not guilty in a Salt Lake City court but will remain in custody because the court says they are flight risks. Seth Jeffs, yet another brother—this one leads a branch of the group in South Dakota—will be prosecuted in that state.

Prosecutors claim the fraud was part of a complicated scheme in which leaders of the church taught members how to defraud the government's SNAP program, as food stamps are officially known. According to Anos Guiora, a University of Utah law professor, the church called their fraudulent practices "bleeding the beast"—the beast being the US government.

The bottom line is this: fraud and malfeasance come in many different flavors, and food-stamp tomfoolery is a tempting variation for those looking to do wrong.