After five years, Shurtleff says sides farther apart in polygamous property saga

Attorney General says he's tired of being a 'patsy' in dispute.

The Salt Lake Tribune/February 15, 2010

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff had a simple goal five years ago when he asked a district court judge to take over a polygamous sect's property trust.

Shurtleff wanted the United Effort Plan Trust's assets - $110 million worth of homes and vacant land in the communities of Hildale, Utah; Colorado City, Ariz.; and Bountiful, Canada - protected from lawsuits and mismanagement by then trustees, all members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

"It was a temporary fix," he said. "I don't think it was ever anybody's thought that the trust would end up being millions of dollars in debt. And litigation against everybody and criminal allegations. Wow."

As the Utah Supreme Court hears arguments by the FLDS that their rights have been violated by the district court's management of the trust Wednesday, Shurtleff will begin a series of what may be course-changing meetings with key staff; attorneys from the Arizona Attorney General's Office; and Bruce R. Wisan, the Salt Lake City accountant who has managed the trust since May 2005.

There is no doubt that Shurtleff, who spent hours last spring trying to negotiate an exit strategy for state oversight of the trust, is frustrated with the trust's current situation.

The communal property trust was created in 1942 as a "Holy United Order" to safeguard homes, businesses and land of a polygamous group then called "The Work." About 10,000 people, most FLDS, now live on trust land.

Today, the trust now has debt of more than $3 million, owed primary to Wisan and his attorneys. Some trust property is saddled with tax liens and Wisan plans to sell other parcels to pay debt. There are at least a dozen lawsuits involving the trust pending in court. Among them: a misdemeanor criminal trespass case filed against Wisan in Arizona, based on allegations he directed a trust employee to unlawfully enter an FLDS member's home to change locks.

Worse, the FLDS and Wisan are engaged in what both sides describe as a legal and psychological war - though who is to blame for the situation is among their many disputes.

"We are nowhere closer to a resolution that we were five years ago," Shurtleff said. "And probably farther away."

That's partly why Shurtleff is vetting an unidentified replacement for Wisan, whom he believes has the right skill set but wrong personality to continue as fiduciary over the entangled trust case.

The FLDS, who make up 90 percent of trust beneficiaries "despise him, see him as an enemy and as somebody who is just there to hurt them, not help them," Shurtleff said.

The attorney general said that Wisan has agreed, at least in the past, to step aside if an acceptable replacement is found and debt owed to him is paid. The change would require approval from 3rd District Court Judge Denise Lindberg, who presides over the case.

At the same time, Shurtleff is bringing his efforts to deal with the FLDS to a head.

In a letter dated Jan. 26, Shurtleff gave the FLDS 30 days to accept a settlement proposal that Wisan put forth last summer. Shurtleff also revealed "serious concerns" with city officials - all FLDS - and said he is contemplating seeking Legislative support to disincorporate Hildale.

Shurtleff said he issued the "last chance" ultimatum after a recent disappointing series of meetings with FLDS representatives and their attorneys, discussions he believes were derailed by directives from jailed sect leader Warren S. Jeffs.

"It just appeared to me that I was being strung along, frankly," he said. "I'm tired of being a patsy."

The FLDS, Shurtleff said, appear to have engaged in a "divide and conquer" strategy pitting him against Wisan and Arizona officials, whom he says have "done a 180" on trying to settle the trust dispute and are "doing their own thing now."

"If that's somebody's strategy, I'm done with that," he said, adding that the disincorporation threat is an "incentive" for the FLDS to act.

"I would be a lot less inclined to do anything else if we could settle this case and get it done," Shurtleff said.

In last summer's attempts to map out the trust's future, Shurtleff said negotiators came up with a way to get around FLDS' refusal to accept property deeds for land they consider consecrated to God through their church. The discussions, though, unraveled over use of communal properties like parks and where and what type of property would be designated for use by community residents who are not FLDS.

"We were looking for ways to take care of everybody's needs," he said. "We were so close."

Shurtleff bristles over criticism he received for that deal-making, which some said gave too much to the FLDS and was eventually rejected by the judge.

"I can't win, frankly, no matter what I do," he said.

Still, he doesn't regret getting in the fight. Jeffs was taking advantage of beneficiaries, Shurtleff said, to support his expansion in Texas and shield underage marriages.

"I stepped in because I wanted to protect - to protect! - the FLDS people and their assets and their rights," he said. "And I feel very bad and sad that the FLDS people are still not being protected."

What's next

Wednesday - 9:30 a.m., Utah Supreme Court will hear a petition brought by the FLDS, who allege their religious rights were violated in the state's takeover of the United Effort Plan Trust.

Feb. 22 - a judge is set to hear a misdemeanor criminal trespass case filed in Arizona against UEP Trust fiduciary Bruce R. Wisan on allegations he directed a trust employee to illegally enter an FLDS member's home and change locks.

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