FLDS under fire for underbidding to win taxpayer-funded work, child labor practices

CBS News 8, Nevada/February 13, 2018

By Patrick Walker

Las Vegas --The controversial Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been under fire lately.

Over the past few years, federal cases in Arizona, and Utah have gone after leaders of the polygamist sects accused of flaunting U.S. laws in the name of religion.  But the pressure has increased because FLDS owned companies are profiting from taxpayer dollars, so there are questions about whether or not they operate above-board.

The world of construction companies trying to win lucrative government contracts is very competitive.  In 2011, 8 News NOW highlighted companies owned by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  FLDS was winning millions of dollars worth of taxpayer-funded work by underbidding other contractors by as much as 15 to 20 percent.

It raised concern among other contractors, including ACME Underground's Shane Sullivan.

"The only thing that you can come up with is the difference on the labor. That is what it comes down to," Sullivan said.

A lot has since changed in the FLDS world, as former leader and self-proclaimed prophet Warren Jeffs continues to run the offshoot religion from a prison cell in Texas. The federal government has turned up the pressure, so in 2016, a federal court ruled in 2016 that leaders of the polygamous sect's home base, the Twin Towns of Hilldale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona were discriminating against non-FLDS residents.

The U.S. Department of Labor twice nailed the FLDS run Paragon Contractors for using child labor in Pecan Fields.  The most recent bust was in 2016 after the company switched names to Par 2, but continued the practice.

"Even though they have been sued now by the federal government over the pecan picking issue, it has not stopped the practice. "It has not stopped any of that," said Flora Jessop, FLDS children's advocate.

Jessop escaped a forced marriage and years of abuse in Colorado City when she was just 16 years old.  She's been fighting for children's rights ever since. 

She says her cousin Jacob Jessop's company, JNJ Engineering Construction, uses similar practices to the Paragon/Par 2 case.

"I have seen it myself, Jessop said. "I have kids that I've worked with that have been utilized as the labor force, across the board." 

A quick records search found a JNJ contract for a nearly $3 million renovation of the City of Las Vegas' Bob Baskin Park. The contract was issued last December.  There are dozens of contracts that go as far back as 2011 and 2005.

The bid was 15 percent less than the closest competitors.  A city spokesman pointed out that by state law, in the interest if the taxpayers, contracts must be issued to the qualified lowest bid.

The county followed that same rule when it issued JNJ the contract for a $2.9 million renovation of Alexander Villas Park, though that bid was only $4,000 less than the nearest competitor. 

"They can underbid all the other contractors in the area, and historically do so because they don't have to pay their labor force," Jessop said. "They use their children as that labor force."

Jessop says children have been trained to run heavy equipment, and do other manual labor on the job sites.

"Trust me, they're doing it in Vegas too, Jessop said. "It's not just; it's not just in Colorado City and Hilldale."

After the allegations, 8 News NOW dropped in on the projects but didn't find any instance of the claims.  8 News NOW also left messages to address the allegations at the phone number associated with the company.  But as in previous stories, we did not receive a response.

Jessop hopes for change, but she says she's not holding her breath.

"I've been fighting to get something done about this and protect these kids for 20 years, and we're still having this conversation today, that we had 20 years ago," Jessop said.

The ITeam first began reporting on FLDS owned contractors moving into the valley in 2006. They also reported on a dispute between Clark County and JNJ over the quality of work done during a project at Wetlands Park in 2007.

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