U.S. official vies for control of polygamist private school

Globe and Mail, Canada/August 4, 2008

Vancouver - In an unprecedented cross-border initiative, a court-appointed official from the United States is trying to take over a private school in British Columbia run by the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Bruce Wisan, who was appointed by a U.S. court to protect the assets of the FLDS, has launched a lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court seeking authority to gain control of the Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School located in a rural area outside Creston, B.C.

Mr. Wisan said in a telephone interview from Salt Lake City, Utah, that he became involved in Canada as a result of the split within the community between followers of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs and supporters of Canadian Winston Blackmore.

He said his interest in the school arises from the refusal of the FLDS group to allow children from families supporting Mr. Blackmore to attend the school. "The non-FLDS, which is in the majority, got kicked out of the school. They are not even allowed to use the school playgrounds," Mr. Wisan said.

Mr. Wisan is also considering a contentious scheme to impose a monthly assessment on Canadian members to pay for sewage and maintenance costs for 48 rural properties in the southeast corner of B.C.

The aggressive moves by the U.S. certified accountant based in Salt Lake City are a sharp contrast to the approach of B.C. authorities.

Despite controversy over polygamy and the teachings at the school run by the religious sect, the provincial Education Ministry continues to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to the school's operations.

Also, for more than 15 years, the B.C. government has been debating whether to take any action against members of the religious sect.

Mr. Wisan said he launched the lawsuit to force an equitable distribution of FLDS assets in Canada. He has asked the court to remove the FLDS members as directors of the society that runs the school and to appoint him as the trustee to regulate its affairs. He has also asked the court to designate him as the beneficial owner of the school properties.

Mr. Wisan is considering an assessment on FLDS members in Canada to pay for infrastructure maintenance on the properties. "The FLDS living on the property will not contribute or deal with any community infrastructure issues," he said.

This fee could spark further confrontation, Mr. Wisan conceded. He recently imposed a $100-a-month assessment on FLDS members in Utah and Arizona. Last week, he sent out an eviction notice to an FLDS member who failed to pay the assessment. "He is $740 behind. This will be a test case."

His work in Canada has been handicapped by the refusal of FLDS members to have contact with non-FLDS people, Mr. Wisan also said.

"I'm a gentile; non-FLDS are apostates. "Neither one of us is to be spoken to, or worked with, or communicated with. So we have an uncomfortable impasse."

But he stayed optimistic that he could resolve the issues without lengthy court battles.

The District Court in Utah appointed Mr. Wisan as a special fiduciary of the United Effort Plan Trust in June, 2005 after Mr. Jeffs was charged with sex crimes. The UEP is a trust that holds most of the land, homes and businesses of the FLDS. The religion advocates communal ownership of property. At the time of the court order, the UEP was estimated to be worth more than $100-million.

In a statement of claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court, Mr. Wisan alleges the Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School Society, which owns and runs the B.C. school, operates in trust for the UEP. The school directors in a statement of defence deny the society acquired the school properties in trust for the UEP. They also challenge whether Mr. Wisan has a right to initiate the court action in Canada.

Merrill Palmer, the school principal and a director of the society that runs the school, declined to comment on the lawsuit. "That would be putting some information in jeopardy that has not been put before the court," he said in an interview, adding that he was not aware of any attempt to settle the matter outside court.

Despite the dispute, the school will be open in September, he said. He estimated the school will have between 175 and 190 children. "Children don't need to know about behind-the-scenes issues. We just worry about educating the children and getting good marks and carrying on."

B.C. Education Minister Shirley Bond declined to comment on Mr. Wisan's effort to take over the B.C. school. A ministry official authorized to respond to questions, but not authorized to be quoted by name, said that Ms. Bond could not comment because the matter was before the court. Also, the lawsuit did not involve the government, the ministry official said.

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