Law firm booted from FLDS Church’s trust case
In a ruling that could have widespread impact on the ongoing legal war involving the Fundamentalist LDS Church, the judge overseeing the polygamous sect’s real-estate arm has ousted the law firm that used to represent it.
Rod Parker and the Salt Lake law firm Snow Christensen & Martineau were disqualified Wednesday from representing the FLDS Church and some of its members in a challenge to the reforms of the United Effort Plan Trust.
“This is an irreconcilable conflict, and it mandates the disqualification of Mr. Parker and the law firm,” 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg said. “It extends to the consultation of present and future litigants.”
The judge also ordered the firm to hand over documents gathered from 17 years of representing the UEP and the FLDS Church to lawyers for the court-appointed special fiduciary placed in charge of the $110 million trust.
“The court’s asking us to hand over the confidences of our client to an adversary in the view of our clients,” Parker said outside court. “I think we have an ethical obligation to resist that.”
FLDS member and spokesman Willie Jessop stood up in court to protest the judge’s decision to disqualify their attorneys.
“Looks to me like it’s part of the psychological and sociological warfare that she’s plenty willing to take part of,” Jessop told the Deseret News as he left the courthouse.
Church lawyers argued that the trust has been changed so dramatically, it is not the same entity it once was. Attorneys for the fiduciary countered that Snow Christensen & Martineau was once hired to defend some of the same claims they’re bringing now.
“It’s a huge deal to have your former counsel suing you,” said Jeffrey L. Shields, an attorney for fiduciary Bruce Wisan.
Parker said he was unsure how the decision would affect at least a half-dozen lawsuits and motions challenging the UEP trust, which is now under court control. The judge’s decision will be appealed to the Utah Supreme Court, lawyers for the firm said.
Attorney Richard Van Wagoner, who represented Parker in the Wednesday hearing, said he will appeal Lindberg’s decision. He also plans to appeal the judge’s order requiring Parker and R. Scott Berry, who also represented the FLDS church, to turn over documents related to the trust to Wisan.
Lindberg said Wisan is entitled to see documents related to the trust’s past management.
Three sect members sought a restraining order to prevent sale of the 711-acre farm until Lindberg reviewed it and requested hearings on future sales, too.
Attorney Jim Bradshaw said it was “remarkable” that Wisan wanted to block the people he was appointed to protect from being heard. He said the sale was being driven by the trust’s cash crunch without regard to the property’s importance to the community.
Attorney Jeff Shields, who represents Wisan, said the trust will “blow up if we don’t get some money into it” and disputed the property’s significance. He said a prospective buyer wants to build a housing development there.
Lindberg agreed to let sect members voice opinions on the sale, but said the beneficiaries do not have standing to bring actions over management of the trust.