Even as they fought to keep a property trust once controlled by Warren Jeffs in government hands at the Utah Supreme Court Wednesday, state attorneys argued taxpayer money shouldn’t go toward managing it.
while Utah Solicitor General Bridget Romano faced tough questioning from the justices on who should foot the management bill in the massive case, the reception was friendlier on the issue of who should control the polygamous sect trust.
“At the end of the day, I would ask this court to determine that the puzzle is complete and tells a single answer,” Romano said. She argued a 2010 Utah Supreme Court decision dismissing a Constitutional challenge to the takeover because the sect waited too long should stand.
Attorneys for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, meanwhile, tried to convince the justices their claim that the state violated the separation of church and state is too important to dismissed because of a three-year delay in challenging the takeover.
That would mean “the government can exercise illegal power if it’s not timely challenged,” said FLDS attorney Rod Parker. If the justices side with him, it could prompt a federal appeals court to uphold a lower court’s decision giving the trust back to the FLDS. Wednesday’s hearing came after the appeals court asked the Utah Supreme Court to clarify the effect of their 2010 ruling.
But Justice Thomas Lee pointed out the wait appears to have been a strategic move.
It was “not just a delay, but a conscious decision to sit on the sidelines and ‘answer them nothing,’ ” Lee said referencing Jeffs’ instructions to his followers. It was one of many assertive questions the high court had for Parker. “On that basis, an egg had been scrambled in the reformation of the trust.
The United Effort Plan (UEP) property trust was created by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1942 on the concept of a “united order,” allowing followers to share in its assets.
FLDS members consider communal living — a principle known as the Law of Consecration and the United Order — an integral part of their religion.
Utah courts seized control of the trust in 2005 amid allegations by state attorneys that FLDS leader Warren Jeffs and other sect leaders had mismanaged its assets.
Valued at more than $110 million, the trust holds most of the property and homes in the twin border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The church also holds property in Bountiful, British Columbia, and Eldorado, Texas.
In 2009, 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg, who presides over legal issues involving the trust, ruled that a liquidity crisis of the UEP trust made selling trust property necessary. The trust has around $3 million in debt and no steady source of revenue. The FLDS Church appealed the ruling to the Utah Supreme Court.
In August 2010, the state’s high court found that the pending state lawsuit, which was filed in 2008 and challenged the administration of the trust, came too late.
Meanwhile, in a separate federal court action, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson ruled that state action to oversee the United Effort Plan Trust was an unconstitutional “virtual takeover.” Benson issued an injunction ordering that the church’s assets be returned to FLDS leaders and prohibiting any further action by the state-appointed special fiduciary when it came to management of the trust. […]
Salt Lake accountant Bruce Wisan, attorneys representing Wisan and other firms were hired to assist in management of the trust have gone largely unpaid since 2008. […]
Wisan’s attorney, Jeffrey Shields, said it was the state that started the process of seizing the trust and recruited Wisan to work as fiduciary.
“Who should pay this, should pay us?” Shields asked. “We’re doing state work. … The court can, should and did order that these fees be paid.”