Federal prosecutors have indicted 11 top leaders of a fundamentalist sect of the Mormon church, including Lyle Jeffs, who has directed the church's day-to-day affairs since his brother, the sect's so-called "prophet," Warren Jeffs was arrested for sexual abuse in 2006.
The US Attorney's office in Utah announced charges of money laundering and fraud against Lyle Jeffs, his brother Seth Jeffs, and nine others who lead the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS. The church leaders are accused of orchestrating an elaborate scheme that allowed them to use food stamps to purchase a John Deere tractor, a pickup truck, and other items.
The FLDS, which boasts around 10,000 members, is headquartered in an area known as Short Creek in the adjoining towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona. Last month, federal prosecutors began arguments in court in a civil trial alleging that the two towns discriminated against non-FLDS residents and used their police forces to do the church's bidding. In a separate case, federal labor lawyers have sued the church over allegations that children were forced to work for little compensation on the sect's pecan farm.
In the latest case brought against the church, the FBI, IRS, and local authorities allege that Jeffs and others plotted to exploit the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for the church's benefit.
According to the federal prosecutors, Lyle Jeffs and others created a system that directed church members who were eligible to receive food stamps to either transfer them to ineligible members, or to use them at stores without receiving any groceries. The scheme allowed the church to spend the money elsewhere. The group allegedly purchased nearly $17,000 worth of paper products using SNAP proceeds, and spent another $13,500 on a John Deere loader tractor. Another $30,000 went toward buying a Ford F-350 truck, prosecutors said.
Marci Hamilton, a professor and expert in church and state law at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law, said the sect's polygamous marriages were key to the scheme.
"The FLDS and other religious polygamy groups do not believe in educating or having the women work, but believe in having multiple wives and multiple children, so what that means as a matter of economics is that to support that kind of family they need welfare, and to obtain welfare they say that the wives don't have husbands," she said. "They shift government funds from an appropriate use to their own use."
'The church is basically just a money-laundering criminal organization.'
Lyle Jeffs and another church leader, John Clifton Wayman, appeared Wednesday before US Magistrate Judge Dustin Pead in Salt Lake City, Utah, where they both pleaded not guilty, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. The indictment also included Seth Jeffs, another brother who runs an FLDS sect in South Dakota.
The leaders face up to five years in federal prison for conspiracy and 20 years for money laundering. Wallace Jeffs, a half-brother of Warren Jeffs who is no longer a member of the church, said the lack of leadership that could result from the indictments would be debilitating to the group.
"If they're finally going to prosecute Lyle and the leaders of the church, it will eventually bring the church down," he told the Tribune. "This pretty much cuts the head off the snake."
He also said that by targeting the SNAP scheme and the church's finances, the feds could "bring the church to its knees," though it might take a year or two.
"The church is basically just a money-laundering criminal organization. The fact that they're actually targeting them financially… is going to bring the church to its knees," he said.
Hamilton said the group may survive, but it would have to change its ways to fall in line with the law. Hamilton said there is now such a vast amount of documentation on the sect's abuses of children and woman, from Warren Jeffs' criminal cases to investigations done on the group, that the government had to begin paying attention.
"It's taken this long for the federal government to catch up to the legal violations. Now that it's right in front of them they just can't avoid it," Hamilton said, explaining that the abuse of children, government benefits, and women has been going on undetected for too long within the sect. "These are the three scopes of their lawlessness. I think that the goal is to enforce the laws for the protection of women and children."
US Attorney John W. Huber, who is leading the SNAP case, said on Tuesday that it's about fraud, not religion. That view was echoed by Eric Barnhart, the FBI's agent on the case.
"This type of conduct represents nothing less than pure theft," Barnhart said in a statement announcing the indictment. "The FBI and its law enforcement partners will actively pursue those entities or persons who unlawfully manipulate and control government programs for their own gain."
Huber filed a motion asking the judge to refuse bail to the church leaders because they have an "elaborate" system of apartments and homes throughout North and South America that makes them a flight risk. The judge will rule on the request next month.
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen