The polygamy tax break

Winston Blackmore says his "congregation" is eligible for special tax status

Macleans, Canada/January 30, 2012

He quoted the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but in Judge Diane Campbell's Vancouver courtroom over the next three weeks, polygamous leader Winston Blackmore is confronting another book of fire, brimstone and unyielding dictates: the Canadian Income Tax Act.

By his own admission, 55-year-old Blackmore, leader of a breakaway sect of fundamentalist Mormons living in Bountiful in southeastern B.C., has faced police investigations since 1990. But while he escaped convictions for the widespread practice of polygamy, and allegations of child exploitation of young brides, it's Canada Revenue Agency tax auditors who have laid low the once all-powerful bishop of Bountiful.

At issue is whether the polygamous group of some 450 that Blackmore leads constitutes a "congregation" eligible for special tax status under the arcane "Communal Organizations" section of the tax act. The blunt assessment by Justice Department lawyer Lynn Burch is no. In opening comments in the federal Tax Court appeal, she called him merely the "patriarch of a large polygamous family." What little legitimacy that he had as a bishop of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints ended in 2002, when the community split in two and Blackmore was excommunicated from the controversial church. He represents, she said, "a splinter group of a splinter group."

Auditors claim that Blackmore under-reported $1.5 million in personal income over five years starting in 2000, and that he washed personal and family expenses through a Bountiful-based business he controls, J.R. Blackmore and Sons. Throughout, Blackmore, who admitted in court to having 21 wives and to fathering 47 children during the five years under tax review, claimed annual income rarely exceeding $30,000 a year. She said by trying to win special tax status, Blackmore wanted to permanently shift his tax burden onto others in the group, many of whom work for the Blackmore company "for a pittance" in remote logging and wood-processing plants. If he sees himself as a shepherd, she told the court, "the role of a good shepherd is to shear the sheep, not skin it."

To achieve special communal status as a congregation—as, for example, Hutterite communities have—Blackmore's group must meet the criteria under Section 143 of the act. Members must live and work together, adhere to the principles of the religion, they can't individually own property and their working lives must be devoted to the congregation. Blackmore, clutching his books of faith, testified he and his flock meet that test. He cited from the founding Covenants and Doctrines of the Latter-Day Saints, which says all members have "equal claims" to property, and that men's talents must contribute to "the Lord's storehouse to become the common property of the whole church." At other times he quoted Scripture, and the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who published the Book of Mormon in 1830. Blackmore said he remains faithful to Smith's "founding principles," including plural marriage, while mainstream Latter-Day Saints broke faith.

Blackmore takes a calculated risk by fighting the taxman. He is testifying under subpoena as a "compelled witness" in the likelihood that his testimony in this civil case won't be admissible in any criminal trial. Just a week before this trial, the B.C. government appointed yet another special prosecutor to consider if such charges as sexual exploitation and trafficking of young brides to polygamous enclaves in the U.S. can be laid. Clearly, these are taxing times for Bountiful and its defrocked bishop.

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