Religious beliefs keep money flowing into 'church company'

Vancouver Sun/February 1, 2012

Ken Oler has two wives and 21 children.

Until 2002, he worked for "the church company." For 17 years, he earned $1,600 a month supervising the logging, trucking and road-building operations.

Of course, the family got child tax credits and his wife, Alice Blackmore, earned a teaching salary from Bountiful elementary-secondary school that averaged about $800 a month.

After every paycheque, Oler went to the bank and took out the cash equivalent to 10 per cent of the family's total income. Oler would then hand it over to the bishop of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) who would record it in the church record.

The bishop was Winston Blackmore. Blackmore was also his boss and the 40-per-cent owner of J.R. Blackmore & Sons - the "church company."

Oler could have earned more working somewhere else. But, he said, "It was a company that provided work for [people in] the community and helped do what was needed to provide infra-structure for the community."

The Olers made ends meet by bartering labour for food and helping others in the community tend the 15-acre communal garden.

They never saved.

"In this community, we knew they were going to be there for us so there was not real need to build up a banking account."

Any extra money Oler had, he gave to Blackmore to redistribute. He never asked for an accounting of where it was spent. Oler said he could see the "really tangible results."

The Olers lived on church-owned property. He "consecrated" his labour and helped build the school, roads and the community's water system.

But in 2002, Oler quit working for Blackmore, who had been excommunicated and replaced by Jim Oler, Ken's brother.

"I don't know if I sided with my brother," Oler said Tues-day. "I maintained my beliefs as a Mormon. What keeps me doing what I'm doing are my beliefs as a Mormon."

Oler, two of his sons and another brother started Oler Brothers Contracting, taking with them a contract that Ken had negotiated for "the church company."

He also ended up with three pieces of equipment that were worth less than the money Blackmore's company owed on them.

Three years later when the forestry industry fell on hard times, so did Oler and his company.

Both were bankrupt and Oler had no real assets. The house he'd built was on land owned by the FLDS's United Effort Plan trust.

He did it all because of his beliefs, which include polygamy, consecrating money, property and labour to the community, and tithing.

But about six months ago, Oler left the FLDS and he and his three daughters moved to Alberta where he and two sons found work. The rest of his family stayed behind in Bountiful.

"I was certainly not in agreement with some of the things that have gone on and some of the situations ... people [including FLDS president Warren Jeffs] have gone to prisons for some of those things [child sexual abuse] and I didn't believe in some of the church's philosophies, so I decided to leave."

Oler testified Tuesday in Federal Tax Court about his life and beliefs on Blackmore's behalf. Blackmore is appealing a $1.5-million reassessment of his personal income for a five-year period between 2000 and 2006 and the $4.3 million worth of back taxes, penalties and interest owed personally and by his companies.

And to avoid the back taxes and the interest that has continued to mount since the reassessment, Blackmore must prove that his group (comprised of about half of Bountiful's 1,000 residents) qualify under the federal Income Tax Act as a religious congregation.

Earlier on Tuesday, an expert witness hired by Blackmore suggested that within the Mormon tradition, defining what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, is not as easy as mainstream Mormons (including Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney) might like.

"There has been continual dispute about who is the head of the LDS church," said John Walsh, an independent scholar and a mainstream Mormon.

Asked whether it's fair to say that there has been no consensus about who leads the church since Joseph Smith's death in 1844 until the present, Walsh replied: "Yes."

Based on doctrine, history and tradition, rather than there being a single church, Walsh said there are many, ranging from the mainstream church centred in Salt Lake City to the Community of Christ (founded by Smith's son) to the FLDS and breakaway groups like Blackmore's that cling to Smith's polygamy edict.

The trial continues.

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