States seize polygamists’ school financial records
The seizure of financial records Tuesday at Colorado City Unified School District signals another turn of the legal vice being used to squeeze religious leaders out of a community of polygamists along Arizona’s border with Utah.
School district papers and computers were confiscated using a search warrant issued under seal by a court. Attorney General Terry Goddard confirmed that the maneuver is part of “a strategy to apply pressure in any legitimate way we can” against prophets within the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, a breakaway sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “It’s beginning to pay off,” Arizona’s top prosecutor added.
The sect and its estimated 6,000 members are not affiliated with mainstream Mormonism. Through elections and a religious trust, they control the school district, municipal government and most property in the isolated towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
More than a half-century ago, law enforcement efforts to root out polygamy in the area culminated in the Short Creek raid, a political and public relations disaster. In 1953, Gov. Howard Pyle sent scores of peace officers into the community to protect children and put down an “insurrection” against public law. News photographs of tearful children being taken from their mothers prompted a national backlash. Most of the criminal charges were dropped. Pyle lost the next election.
Goddard said he and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff agreed two years ago to try again based on numerous complaints of sexual exploitation, welfare fraud and tax evasion. Instead of a frontal assault, however, they settled on a coordinated crackdown using law and education.
Among the tactics:
• Targeted criminal prosecutions: A Colorado City deputy marshal, Rodney Holm, was indicted on charges of bigamy and unlawful sex with a family member. Orson William Black Jr., a prominent FLDS member, was charged with sex crimes against children.
• Civil actions: Two lawsuits are pending in Utah against Warren Jeffs, the church’s prophet and leader. One complaint, by a nephew, accuses Jeffs of sodomy. Another, filed by former members of the church, alleges a cover-up of child-sex abuse.
Goddard said a new action is planned this week in Utah seeking to wrest control of the United Effort Plan, a church trust that controls FLDS property. He said the trust may own as much as $200 million in real estate, cash and corporations.
• Education and public relations: A 24-hour hotline has been established for crime victims in Colorado City and Hildale. Billboards are posted. Law enforcement officials and social workers hand out calling cards.
“We’re still trying to find victims,” said Goddard, noting that the hotline gets a half-dozen serious calls each week. “If you need to get out of this community, we’ll help you.”
Last year, the state put a trailer office in Colorado City, establishing the first outpost of public authority in decades, staffed by Child Protective Services workers, sheriff’s deputies, prosecutors and other officials.
“All of this is unprecedented,” Goddard said. “We really haven’t had this kind of hands-on presence in the community before.”
• Regulation: A move to take over the Colorado City Unified School District, the community’s largest employer, represents the latest salvo.
Three weeks ago, lawmakers passed a bill enabling the state to take control of school districts that are insolvent or suffer from “gross mismanagement.” The law authorizes the Arizona Board of Education to appoint a receiver who can fire administrators and overrule decisions of elected trustees.
Alvin Barlow, Colorado City schools superintendent, could not be reached for comment.
Goddard said he’ll ask the State Board of Education to appoint a receiver as soon as the law becomes effective in August.
Tom Horne, state schools superintendent, said no other school district in Arizona faces a receivership move. “Colorado City is in a class by itself,” he said.
Mike File, superintendent of Mohave County schools, said he met with about 60 teachers in the Colorado City district last week after state legislators passed a bill putting the district into receivership.
“The meeting was somewhat contentious, and they were blaming religious persecution,” File said. “I basically told them that things were going to get worse before they get better because their budget doesn’t support many people.”
The school district has been plagued by deficit spending and bounced paychecks issued to employees. As of last year, there were 344 students and 24 teachers in a combined educational facility, preschool through 12th grade.
The economic crunch has been blamed, in part, on an exodus of students in 2000, when feuding among FLDS leaders prompted two-thirds of the students to drop out and begin home-schooling. Enrollment figures tumbled by more than 600, causing a major loss of state revenue tied to student attendance.
The checking account went empty this fall even though employees had agreed to pay cuts. The Arizona School Risk Retention Trust, which insures districts, covered the bounced checks to avert lawsuits. It is now owed about $1.5 million.
According to a recent study commissioned by the trust, the school district overspent its budget by $432,000 last year and faces a 2005 deficit of $1.2 million.
Goddard said a search warrant, based on criminal allegations, was served to ensure that financial records do not disappear before a receivership can be established.
It is part of an overall plan to pressure FLDS leaders into living up to the law or getting out of town.
The church bought a ranch in Texas, where it appears to be building a new headquarters.
Jeffs could not be reached for comment, and those who sued him have been unable to serve legal papers. The law enforcement campaign also appears to have taken a toll on church leadership. In the past year, disputes led Jeffs to excommunicate numerous members.
Reporter Mark Shaffer contributed to this article.