Polygamous church to negotiate trust settlement

Associated Press/April 21, 2009

Salt Lake City - The parties in a years-long battle over control of a polygamous church's property trust are trying to negotiate a settlement on the assets, which were placed under state court oversight after allegations of mismanagement in 2005.

Two days of meetings at the Utah State Capitol begin Wednesday.

At stake is the ownership of the property and homes in the twin border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The land is held by the United Effort Plan Trust, once solely administered by leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

But four years of state intervention has changed the landscape of the communities once known as Short Creek.

Court-appointed trust overseer, accountant Bruce Wisan, has altered the UEP to allow for only secular management of its assets. Other changes make way for private land ownership and allow former FLDS members who either left or were excommunicated to return to the community and claim a share of trust property.

That's rankled faithful FLDS, who believe the approach violates a core tenet of their religion - the Holy United Order - which calls for the sharing of assets for the benefit of those who adhere to church teachings.

Resolving those fundamental differences won't be easy.

"If there were an obvious, easy solution it probably would have happened by now," Wisan said.

The Utah attorney general's office said it has been discussing a possible settlement with all sides since November and has drafted an initial settlement proposal that has been shared with Wisan and the Arizona attorney general's office, which is also involved.

Each party is also bringing their own proposals to the table. The FLDS have not seen the state's proposal, their attorney, Stephen Clark, said Monday.

Beyond the distribution of assets, negotiators will have other issues to tackle, including find a way for the cash-poor trust to pay Wisan, his attorneys and other firms an estimated $2 million in outstanding bills. Another concern: A future management structure for the trust, since Wisan's appointment was intended to be temporary.

In the past an FLDS spokesman, Willie Jessop, has said church members would like to regain control of the land and restore its original religious purposes.

Whether negotiators can find agreement on all or some issues - and leave others for future discussion or litigation - is unclear.

"Anything is possible, I guess," said Clark. "Nobody is going to get everything they want. There are going to be compromises on all sides."

Clark said the FLDS are "going in with realistic, but open attitudes about what can be achieved."

Attorneys for the Utah attorney general's office won control of the UEP trust in 2005, convincing a 3rd District Court judge that church president Warren Jeffs and other church leaders had mismanaged its assets for their own use.

Outside of making property tax payments, the FLDS have largely ignored Wisan's management of the trust and view the state's intervention as religious persecution designed to dismantle their way of life.

Sect members changed course five months ago when it appeared land set aside for a church temple might be sold. They countersued to stop the sale, triggering a "stand down" that began the settlement talks.

The FLDS follow the early teachings of Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including the practice of polygamy, which is believed to bring glorification in heaven. The mainstream Mormon church abandoned the practice in 1890 as a condition of Utah's statehood.

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