Jeffs accused of using trust to silence critics
Land, housing and assets belonging to the nation’s largest polygamous community and estimated to be worth more than $100 million were temporarily frozen Friday by a Utah court.
The ruling effectively wrests financial power of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints from self-proclaimed prophet Warren Jeffs, who for years has controlled the school district, municipal government and most of the property in the isolated towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
Judge Robert Adkins temporarily froze a trust fund for the church and suspended Jeffs and five other trustees, saying he found sufficient evidence that they committed a breach of faith by selling property to church insiders for less than market value.
The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The trust, called the United Effort Plan, encompasses almost all the sect’s assets and was supposed to be shared among 6,000 members, which, unlike the mainstream Mormon religion, practices polygamy.
But authorities in Utah and Arizona say that Jeffs has been using his control of the trust to silence critics. He has excommunicated dozens of the sect’s highest-ranking officials, ordering them out of their trust-owned homes, kicking them out of the community and reassigning their multiple wives to other men.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff praised the court’s decision Friday. “This ruling is a major step toward reducing the arbitrary power of Warren Jeffs and protecting the trust from his manipulation, liquidation and misuse,” Goddard said Friday.
“For the past two years, I’ve worked with the Utah attorney general on a coordinated effort to investigate all credible allegations of child abuse, sexual exploitation, welfare fraud, tax evasion and other financial wrongdoing. The events of this week show we are making good progress.”
Jeffs and other trustees were not notified of Friday’s court hearing for fear that they would attempt to sell even more church property.
Neither Jeffs nor other church members could be reached for comment Friday. But the church last year bought a ranch in Texas, where it appears to be building a new headquarters.
Adkins scheduled a June 22 hearing to determine if Jeffs and the other trustees should be permanently removed from the trust and replaced by an independent third party.
The court decision comes three days after Arizona investigators served a search warrant on the Colorado City Unified School District, where authorities say Jeffs’ followers raided the public treasury for personal gain.
School funds have been used to buy a small airplane, a four-wheel-drive pickup truck and a Ford Excursion, according to investigators, who seized financial records and computers during the search.
The district’s superintendent, business manager and assistant business manager, all members of the sect, gave away school vehicles and school property to the church-controlled city government, according to state investigators.
They also allege that school officials allowed church members the free use of school equipment, wrote checks to city police officers for travel expenses and spent up to $900,000 on miscellaneous expenses since 2000.
In early 2000, investigators say a dispute with a splinter group of the church caused Jeffs to order church members to withdraw their students from the public school, leaving only 400 students enrolled there.
Although virtually all the students who remained belonged to the splinter group, members of Jeffs’ church retained control of the School Board and administrative offices.
“We know they have a very large payroll relative to the size of their student body,” Goddard said. “That raises questions of who is benefiting from it and what are their motivations.”
The Arizona Department of Education shows that the Colorado City Unified School District had a budget of $4.5 million this year. But the school district has been plagued by deficit spending and bounced paychecks issued to employees.
The Arizona School Risk Retention Trust, which insures school 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 deficit of $1.2 million.
District Superintendent Alvin Barlow, Business Manager Jeffrey Jessop and Assistant Business Manager Oliver Barlow did not return calls Friday.
Goddard said the search warrant was served to ensure that records do not disappear.