Court overseer of polygamist trust seeking delay on new trustees
Nov. 6, 2005
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Monday November 7, 2005
SALT LAKE CITY – The court-appointed auditor trying to track down the loose assets of a polygamist sect will ask a judge on Monday to hold off on appointing a new panel of trustees for the community trust.
Bruce Wisan, an independent accountant, said he was still unraveling the United Effort Plan, a trust that owns real estate and other assets thought to be worth more than $100 million.
Wisan was appointed in May to oversee the United Effort Plan when the judge stripped control from six trustees who served the now-fugitive leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has a large ranch in West Texas.
Third District Court Judge Denise Lindberg was scheduled to select from a slate of 23 nominations for trustees at a hearing Monday, but Wisan’s attorneys filed a motion last month asking her to delay making the appointments. The attorneys general of Utah and Arizona support the motion.
“There are just some pretty technical issues, some tax and legal issues, that need to be resolved before getting involved in this,” said Wisan, who has spent months trying to document church assets in southern Utah and elsewhere.
The trust was established by leaders of the FLDS church in the 1940s to hold the collective assets of its members. That includes virtually all of the property in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., where most of the church’s estimated 10,000 members reside.
The FLDS church split from the mainline Mormon church more than a century ago over the issue of plural marriage. Mormons abandoned the practice as a condition of statehood in 1890, but the FLDS continues to believe polygamy will ensure their salvation.
In court last June, state attorneys accused church prophet Warren Jeffs and five others of looting the trust and leaving it vulnerable to lawsuits by failing to defend them in court.
Jeffs has not been seen publicly in more than a year. In June he was indicted in Arizona on charges of arranging a marriage for a 16-year-old girl and man who already was married.
Wisan has identified more than 150 different parcels owned by the trust in Utah and Arizona. The church also is believed to own property in British Columbia and last year began building homes and a temple on a 2,000-acre ranch in Eldorado, Texas.
Among questions for the trust are whether it truly has a charitable purpose, how assets will be taxed and uncertain values for property, some containing multiple houses and families. Wisan said many of the parcels haven’t even been surveyed on the ground.
It is reason for the judge to pause before appointing a set of trustees who might come into conflict later on how to manage trust assets, he said.
“I would hate to see the trust bifurcated before we resolve some of the legal and tax issues,” he said.
An additional problem, Wisan says, is the trust has continued to function since 1942 outside accounting rules in a “good old boy network.”
“In my mind the trust has expanded way beyond the boundaries of the procedural and policy functions that should have been growing at the same time,” he said.
Until recently, the trust didn’t even keep a bank account. All of the assets were property. In September, Wisan got court permission to sell an 1,130-acre parcel of undeveloped land near Hildale, putting $1.5 million into the bank.
“That’s how backward the policies and procedures have been,” he said.
At issue in appointing trustees is whether the court should accept current members or ex-members of the church, or people who are unaffiliated. Candidates seeking appointment come in each category, plus a triumvirate of southern Utah businessmen seeking millions of dollars in compensation for their services, raising questions about their allegiance.
On file at the court are dozens of petitions addressed to Lindberg on the candidates. Some attached hundreds of signatures supporting or opposing various candidates.
Attorney Roger Hoole, who represents several past and current FLDS members, said he’ll argue Monday that the judge should appoint an advisory board of people who understand the workings of the FLDS community to assist Wisan.
“Our position is let’s reform the trust but let’s do it with an informed group who understands the community,” Hoole said.
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