A Utah judge announced Monday that the property trust of a polygamist community on the Arizona Strip will be administered by a neutral board of trustees, a decision that strips control of the fund from the sect’s priesthood.
Third District Judge Denise Lindberg said the charitable intent of the United Effort Plan (UEP) will be preserved but the trustees will be barred from using assets to promote “illegal practices.” She acknowledged that setting up a system that gives aid to beneficiaries without regard to how well they comply with the religious tenets of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) could be tricky.
“The devil’s going to be in the details,” Lindberg said.
The judge, who announced her decision at a court hearing, is working on a final version of her ruling. She expects to complete it later this month.
Also Monday, Lindberg heard testimony that most of this year’s FLDS property tax bill of $1.2 million has not been paid, even though there is evidence that the church is receiving “great sums of money.” The money, donations from businesses and church members, allegedly is being used to build a new FLDS community in Texas.
Bruce Wisan, a special fiduciary appointed in May to protect UEP assets, said the church in the past has collected money from its members to pay taxes. This year, the faithful have been told “to do nothing” to help cover the bill, he said.
The money is there, Wisan said, adding that one company is putting $250,000 a month in church coffers and individuals also are contributing. The money is going into a “mysterious black hole,” he contended.
Outside court, Wisan speculated that the revenue has been diverted to the YFZ Ranch, a church property just outside the rural west Texas town of EldoA^rado.
The new system to administer the trust will be a drastic change for the fundamentalist sect, which established the UEP in 1942 to manage properties consecrated to the church. The UEP controls almost all the homes and property in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., which are home to the FLDS Church and up to 10,000 residents, many of whom support the practice of polygamy.
For now, Wisan will continue his service and be backed by a temporary advisory board of members to be named by Lindberg. She plans to later appoint a board of trustees or a firm that specializes in handling trusts to administer UEP assets.
The FLDS priesthood will continue to control the religious side of the church, but its advice about how to handle the financial part of the trust will be nonbinding.
Wisan said he wants to survey the properties in the twin communities to determine their values, a procedure that would cost $500,000 to $750,000. He said the UEP often charges tenants only nominal payments to live in homes controlled by the trust.
Wisan has scheduled a meeting in Hildale on Thursday to discuss with tenants how they can pay their property taxes and be secure in their homes. Residents who don’t pay could face liens on their homes and eventual eviction, the fiduciary said.
UEP trustees were suspended in May and Wisan was put in control at the request of the Utah Attorney General’s Office, which alleged the trust was not being administered properly. With three pending lawsuits against the FLDS and its leaders, who were not defending themselves and could lose by default, officials feared that residents could be forced to give up their homes to pay off any awards.
One of the former trustees is FLDS President Warren Jeffs, who has not been seen publicly for almost two years. Jeffs was indicted earlier this year by a Mohave County, Ariz., grand jury on charges related to his alleged arrangement of a marriage between a 28-year-old man who already was married and a 16-year-old girl.
The church president is considered a fugitive and there is a $10,000 reward offered for information leading to his arrest.