Warrants claim misuse of funds in polygamous towns

Associated Press/April 6, 2010

Salt Lake City - Government officials in twin polygamous communities along the Utah-Arizona border were served Tuesday with search warrants seeking evidence on suspected misuse of public funds, authorities said.

The warrants allege City Manager David Darger and Fire Chief Jake Barlow in Colorado City, Ariz., personally benefited or took money for their own use from the fire department "by false pretenses and/or without authority of law," sometime between Aug. 1, 2004 and Feb. 1, 2010.

"There's an investigation being conducted by the county attorney's office at this time for a possible misuse of public funds and fraudulent schemes at the Fire Department and possibly the city government," Mohave County Sheriff Tom Sheahan told The Associated Press.

No one was arrested or charged.

Darger, who also serves as secretary-treasurer of the Fire Department, was out of town Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. Barlow declined to comment but expressed concern over the records being taken.

"The Fire Department wants to do the very best they can for the citizens and wants to help them," Barlow said. "Now all of their records are being exposed ... we have protected medical histories on thousands of patients — all in the name of the county attorney's office investigation."

The twin communities of Colorado City and Hildale, Utah, are home to members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an embattled religious sect that follows Warren Jeffs, a church leader serving prison time after being convicted of rape as an accomplice in the marriage of a 14-year-old follower to her 19-year-old cousin.

Management of the twin towns and the FLDS have been under increasing scrutiny since 2005, following allegations of an increase in underage marriages and misuse of a church property trust.

The Mohave County Sheriff's Office in Arizona said warrants were served at three fire stations and the private residences of Darger and Barlow in Colorado City. Another warrant was served at a fire station in Hildale.

Investigators were looking for documents and computers files, including financial records.

Sheahan said officers had to forcibly enter one home after residents refused requests from police to open the doors.

Salt Lake City attorney Rod Parker, who represents the FLDS, said he had not yet seen the warrants and was unclear about the scope of information being sought.

Barlow said the Colorado City Fire District covers a 225 square-mile area along the Utah-Arizona border and serves Hildale through an interlocal agreement. The district has about six fill-time staff members and 100 volunteers, including firefighters and paramedics. Barlow said the district budget for 2009 was about $1.5 million.

The FLDS founded the twin towns in the mid-20th century, and its members make up the majority of residents, operate most businesses and work in all levels of city government and services.

The FLDS practice polygamy in arranged marriages, a tradition tied to the early theology of the mainstream Mormon church. Mormons denounced the practice in the 1890s.

The faith is engaged in a protracted legal battle with the attorneys general of Utah and Arizona for control of the $110 million church trust.

Jeffs, 53, resigned as president of the FLDS church in 2007 but is believed to remains the faith's ecclesiastical leader.

He is currently in Mohave County Jail awaiting two criminal trials related to the underage marriage of sect girls. He is already serving two consecutive sentences of five years to life on the Utah conviction of rape as an accomplice.

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