Only 6 apply for board of trustees overseeing polygamous trust with $118 million in homes

Associated Press/July 14, 2013

Salt Lake City - Only six people have applied to become members of a board of trustees that would be given control of a state-run trust that once belonged to Warren Jeffs' polygamist sect on the Arizona-Utah border and holds an estimated $118 million, Utah court officials said.

Earlier this year, a Utah judge gave initial approval for Utah and Arizona officials to hand over the trust to a five-member board of independent-minded community members from Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona

But that may not be an easy task with so few applicants to choose from.

Utah court officials will review the applications and decide if they want to extend the deadline in hopes of attracting more applicants, an option made available in the court order. Third District Court Judge Denise Lindberg will have the final say on the board. The names of the applicants are being withheld at this point, Utah courts spokeswoman Nancy Volmer said.

Some of the decisions facing the board could be tricky.

There are going to be multiple claims on at least one-third of the 750 homes in the trust, said Bruce Wisan, a Salt Lake City accountant put in charge of the trust when it was seized by Utah in 2005 over allegations of mismanagement by Jeffs and other leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Some homes were built by one person, but since maintained and lived in by another. In other cases, several different people have lived in a house over the past two decades.

One man built his home and has lived it in the entire time, but he is ex-FLDS and worries the sect will try to take it back, said Jennifer Frey, outreach coordinator for Safety Net, a coalition of agencies that provides support and services to polygamous communities.

After having their homes tied up in a lengthy-court battle, residents are eager for resolution, she said.

"It affects them terribly," Frey said. "They really don't know at any given time if they own the property they are on, even if they built the house. They don't have power over their own property because it's tied up in the trust."

When the state first took over the trust, a Utah judge considered a board of trustees but opted to wait until the trust had been reformed to go that route, and, instead, appointed Wisan to run it.

Nobody imagined it would take eight years to reach that point. It will likely take several months to select a board.

One major hurdle to being able to begin the redistribution process is already being cleared. The state of Utah has paid $3 million of the $5.6 million it owes Wisan and other firms hired to liquidate assets of a communal land trust. The state legislature voted to set aside the funds in the most recent session.

The small number of applicants for the board wasn't from a lack of trying.

At a recent community meeting in the polygamous communities, representatives from the Utah Attorney Generals' office underscored the importance of being on the trust to about 90 people in attendance.

"It would empower them to control their property, their homes, their farms," said Joni Jones, Utah assistant attorney general and chief of the civil rights section. "And they could be the ones making the decisions."

But some residents have expressed concerns about the e application process. Some said they were uncomfortable nominating themselves and would have preferred a process where people are voted in, Jones said. Others complained about the question on the application about bankruptcies, with one person telling Jones that Jeffs drove many of them into bankruptcy by forcing them to give everything to the sect.

Bankruptcy isn't an automatic disqualification, but officials will do criminal background checks, review civil court and bankruptcy filings, verify professional licenses and run a credit check.

The $50 application fee likely kept some people from applying, Frey said.

Wisan encouraged the five community members who have been on an advisory board helping him for the past eight years to apply for the new trust. As far as he knows, only one did.

"They see it as a mess," Wisan said. "I've had some that have looked me eyeball to eyeball and said, 'it's a disaster.'"

Many of the estimated 7,500 people living in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, are still followers of Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting two underage girls he considered his brides. He continues to try to lead the sect from jail.

None of his followers are expected to be on the board.

"I've been told by insiders, members of the FLDS, that anybody that participates from the FLDS will be immediately ex-communicated," Wisan said.

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