Utah attorney general will tour polygamous FLDS sect's community

UEP Trust : Negotiations aim to settle disputes over sect's property trust

The Salt Lake Tribune/December 19, 2008

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff accepted his first-ever invitation from a polygamous sect to tour its embattled community Thursday, the clearest signal yet of high-level interest in resolving disputes over the group's property trust.

Shurtleff visited the Harker Farm in Beryl on Wednesday and on Thursday toured the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., where a majority of residents are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He is meeting with sect member Willie Jessop and attorneys Jim Bradshaw and Ken Okazaki.

The tour included a stop at the abandoned Western Precision building and the newly refurbished Cottonwood Park, which the sect again began managing a week ago.

Shurtleff's staff has taken a leading role in negotiating a resolution to lawsuits over the sect's United Effort Plan Trust, which for the past three years has been under court oversight.

The visit marks a turning point in relations between the sect and the Attorney General's Office. Shurtleff said he had sought such a meeting for years.

"I couldn't be happier that we're talking face-to-face," Shurtleff said. "I am very positive this whole UEP thing can be resolved."

Shurtleff said he is still "sorting out" his feelings about what he has seen and heard in his first meetings with FLDS members.

"Obviously, I've heard one side of story for a long time and I'm hearing a different side of the story," he said. "The truth is somewhere in the middle of all that."

Bradshaw said the meeting "very productive," adding, "There are a lot of really challenging and difficult issues, but we're trying to work through them."

Negotiations over the trust began after a Nov. 14 hearing in St. George that drew thousands of FLDS members who objected to a proposed sale of trust land they consider to have historic and religious significance. Rather than proceed with the hearing, 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg asked the sect and a fiduciary overseeing the trust to "stand down" numerous lawsuits and attempt a "global resolution" of disputes.

Shurtleff met with fiduciary Bruce R. Wisan, his attorneys and a trust advisory board several weeks ago. He said he met with FLDS member Jessop, who is a spokesman for sect members, a week ago.

Jessop compared it to the meetings between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s that led to the end of the Cold War.

"I am sure there were a lot of issues to work through at their first meeting but it ended up being a great thing," Jessop said. "This is a great foundation for a relationship that can benefit a lot of people."

Shurtleff and Jessop agreed to this week's visit to the twin towns and Harker Farm, which is the subject of several lawsuits. Wisan seized the farm from FLDS members over a year ago and planned to sell it, as well as Berry Knoll Farm. Both farms have provided food and income for the sect for decades; Berry Knoll also is prophesied to be the location of a future temple.

Wisan said the property sales were necessary to fund operations of the trust, which has no money. Neither he nor his attorneys have been paid in over a year and are owed at least $2 million.

But the sales for the first time drew a public response from the sect, which had for three years engaged in a silent protest of the trust's takeover.

Shurtleff said a key aspect of the negotiations is coming up with way to pay fees owed to Wisan and his attorneys and sorting out the lawsuits over the Harker Farm. Discussions underway would allow a proposed subdivision of the community to proceed and would require that a future advisory board to include non-FLDS members.

Shurtleff said he has heard from former sect members in the community who are concerned about what the resolution will mean, particularly whether they will be forced out of homes they now occupy with Wisan's permission. Shurtleff said he plans to meet with those individuals as well.

But he said any resolution will also address non-FLDS members' interests.

"We are not going back to way it was," he said. "I hope we can get this to a point where everybody gives some and compromises and there is resolution. Every experience I have had here has been positive in that regard."

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