FLDS Questions State Management of Trust

By Jennifer Dobner
Houston Chronicle
August 14, 2008

SALT LAKE CITY — More than three years after the Utah courts took control of a polygamous church's property trust, a representative of the embattled sect is speaking up — asking a state judge whether church members can ultimately own the homes and property now managed by a court-appointed accountant.

Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints spokesman Willie Jessop appeared in 3rd District Court on Thursday, telling Judge Denise Lindberg he wanted to clear up confusion surrounding the ownership of assets in the United Effort Plan Trust. Court-appointed CPA Bruce Wisan has managed the $110 million trust for three years.

"All we're asking for is some clarification on your ideas about FLDS owning property, " Jessop said.

The UEP is the charitable arm of the FLDS church. The trust was formed in 1942, when church members turned over their property and other assets to establish a communal order along the Utah/Arizona border where they had lived since the 1920s. Church leaders served as the trust's managers, deciding where members lived, when they moved and what properties they could build on.

Under Wisan's leadership, some assets have been sold and the trust reorganized to allow its beneficiaries to obtain deeds to their homes.

"I can honestly tell you I have no bias against FLDS. I don't have a bias for FLDS or for people who have been formerly FLDS. I truly have no view on that issue," Lindberg said. "I believe that in the long term efforts toward where this trust is going that the most appropriate thing is ... to allow and create the opportunity for people to be able to own their property and be able to control it. I'm not going to put a religious test on that."

Ownership, however, comes with some restrictions, Lindberg said. As revised in 2006, the trust allows for individuals to petition for deeds or to establish family trusts, but prevents families from turning those assets back to the church, even if it were to form a new trust. FLDS leaders have in the past been accused of using their authority to unfairly control followers.

"You can't deed it to the UEP 2," Wisan's attorney Jeff Shields said. "That was one of the provisions."

That's a point of contention for Jessop and other FLDS who consider communal living an integral part of their religion.

"The issue is, if I own a piece of property, and I own it like you own your house, and then someone comes along and says, 'But because of your religion we're going to put on some extra restrictions ... I look at that as a direct attack on my religion,'" Jessop told Lindberg.

At Lindberg's request, Jessop said he would review the trust documents and consider applying for a seat on a board of advisers working with Wisan to make decisions about the trust. Two seats on the state's seven-member board have always been reserved for active FLDS members, but none ever applied.

"I want what I've wanted all along — which is all the potential beneficiaries to have a say in how the trust is managed," Lindberg said.

Lindberg also offered to travel to the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., where most FLDS make their homes, to meet with church members.

Jessop blamed Wisan for the misunderstandings. Wisan says he's tried be transparent — mailing letters, reports and recordings of court hearings to the FLDS and posting information on a trust Web site.

Until now the FLDS have operated on a directive from imprisoned church leader Warren Jeffs to "answer them nothing," believing the UEP takeover was part of a government campaign to persecute the FLDS for their religious beliefs, which include the practice of polygamy in arranged marriages that sometimes have involved underage girls.

Wisan was awarded guardianship of the UEP in 2005 after state attorneys convinced Lindberg that Jeffs and other church leaders had fleeced trust assets for their own benefit, including keeping the then-fugitive Jeffs on the run from criminal charges. Jeffs was arrested in 2006 and convicted by a Utah jury of two counts of rape as an accomplice for his role in the 2001 marriage of an underage girl. He's now in an Arizona jail awaiting another trial on similar charges and has been indicted by a Texas grand jury on sexual assault charges.

Wisan and his attorneys have threatened evictions in Hildale and Colorado City when tax payments lagged, or more recently when residents refused to sign occupancy agreements. Those threats have gained the reluctant cooperation of church members, although Wisan said Thursday that some continue to resist.

Last month, 57 individuals and the governments of Hildale and Colorado City hired three Salt Lake City attorneys to challenge Wisan's authority as the court-appointed head of the trust.


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