Mediation talks continue over polygamous sect trust

FLDS Negotiations over control of property are called 'cautiously optimistic.'

The Salt Lake Tribune/April 22, 2009

Mediation talks continue today with the aim of resolving disputes over control of property in a polygamous community after daylong talks that most participants were using two words to describe: "Cautiously optimistic."

"I feel like progress has been made today and more can be made tomorrow," said Paul Cassell, a former federal judge and University of Utah law professor hired to mediate a management plan for the United Effort Plan Trust.

Among key issues are how to settle claims to homes that allow polygamous sect members and those who left or never belonged to the faith to peacefully coexist in the community. Also: how to manage community amenities such as a park, cemetery and health clinic and pay off the trust's debts.

The two-day summit comes five months after 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg ordered a "stand down" in lawsuits involving the trust and asked attorneys to attempt to resolve disputes outside of a courtroom.

The trust, set up in 1942 to safeguard land holdings of self-described fundamentalist Mormons who engage in polygamy, is comprised of virtually all property in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Most of the twin towns' 8,000 or so residents are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff pushed for the court takeover of the property trust, valued at $110 million, after its assets were targeted by lawsuits filed on behalf of disaffected sect members. The A.G.'s Office also alleged sect leader Warren S. Jeffs was misusing trust assets, something the sect disputes.

Lindberg appointed accountant Bruce R. Wisan in 2005 to run the trust and stripped it of its religious purpose.

But the relationship between the fiduciary and sect has been contentious from the start. He proposed subdividing the land to allow private ownership -- something opposed by the FLDS, who consider the trust's holdings as sacred consecrations made to support the church.

Wisan also proposed selling farm properties to fund the trust's activities and pay its debts, moves that triggered the sect to file lawsuits last fall to block the sales. Wisan has spent around $6 million managing the trust, a total that includes about $2.6 million mostly owed to the fiduciary, his attorneys and engineering firm.

Shurtleff said early Wednesday he feared new legal wrangling in recent weeks had sabotaged any hope for mediation.

"We came into this battling more than I wanted us to," said Shurtleff. But as the day wore on, Shurtleff said he saw signs of a willingness to compromise.

Shurtleff said mediation talks on Wednesday focused mostly on housing issues. One proposal under discussion is creation of a five-member board comprised of two FLDS members, two non-FLDS members and a neutral third party to handle housing claims.

"I think we can do that," he said. "It is just going to have to be the right people."

Participating in the talks are members of a court-appointed advisory board for the trust, attorneys for the sect, the two cities, the trust and plaintiffs as well as the Utah and Arizona attorney generals' offices. The various camps set up at different tables in the cafeteria at the Capitol, meeting separately with Cassell.

"I'm hoping the right of every individual will be recognized through the whole process and that the trust will be distributed on an individual basis, not on a majority vote," said Seth Cooke, a trust advisory board member.

FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said most participants came hoping for a lot and expecting little.

"I've been pleasantly surprised by how compatible people have been, particularly the attorney general," he said. "People have been realistically negotiating and I'm hoping we can come up with a resolution we can all live with."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.