Fiscal reforms coming to FLDS

Judge expected to back changes to UEP Trust

Deseret Morning News/September 4, 2006
By Ben Winslow

Hildale - While captured polygamist leader Warren Jeffs remains in a Las Vegas jail cell awaiting extradition to Utah, his community is undergoing changes that will shift its very foundations.

A judge in Salt Lake City's 3rd District Court is poised to sign a reformation plan for the Fundamentalist LDS Church's financial empire, the United Effort Plan (UEP) Trust.

In Hildale and across the border in Colorado City, Ariz., the roads are a patchwork of pavement and red dirt. Some homes are grand, with stately brick, spiraling staircases, ornate fences and multiple entrances. Others are tiny, run-down trailers or unfinished buildings with wood fences put up to keep the outside world at bay.

Signs indicate they sit on "UEP property." The trust controls homes, businesses and property in these towns and other FLDS enclaves. Its assets are estimated at more than $100 million.

Based on the early Mormon concept of a "united order," people share property, goods and profits. They're supposed to get them back according to their wants and needs. But in 2005, the state of Utah took control of the UEP Trust amid allegations that FLDS leader Warren Jeffs had been siphoning money from the "united effort."

The judge appointed certified public accountant Bruce Wisan to handle the UEP.

"It's been probably the most impactful thing that I've ever done," he said. "Issuing financial statements and doing tax returns usually doesn't affect thousands of people."

Jeffs is awaiting extradition to Utah, where he faces criminal charges of rape as an accomplice. He is accused of forcing teenage girls into a polygamous marriage with an older man. He is facing similar charges across the border in Mohave County, Ariz.

On the run from police, Jeffs was arrested in a simple traffic stop on I-15 last week outside Las Vegas. The FBI is now looking into who helped keep Jeffs on the lam for years. Both Utah and Arizona authorities say there are other investigations into Jeffs and the FLDS Church.

Court takeover

Wisan allowed a Deseret Morning News reporter to accompany him as he visited the polygamous border towns just days after Jeffs was arrested in Las Vegas.

"I think everyone's just waiting to see what happens," he said of the community's reaction to the arrest. "They're just being very careful. They don't want to show disloyalty."

Standing on a sidewalk outside the local mercantile, Wisan gets a few glares from FLDS faithful. Since being placed in charge of the UEP, many FLDS have come to see him as an enemy of their prophet. They have viewed the actions of the court as a "government takeover."

When it comes to dealing with Wisan, Jeffs instructed his followers to "say nothing, do nothing, sign nothing." The simple task of paying property taxes soon turned into a monumental undertaking. After his pleas went unheard, the fiduciary had ex-FLDS members post property tax notices on every home in Hildale and Colorado City, threatening eviction if the taxes weren't paid.

The taxes were paid.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff hailed it as a victory.

"They're following the law now, they're submitting themselves to the jurisdiction of the state of Utah," he said at the time.

When he was first appointed, Wisan acknowledged he didn't know much about the FLDS Church - or polygamists.

"I had a certain image of polygamists and probably prejudice," he told the Deseret Morning News. "I've come to know and appreciate a number of polygamists and have respect for a number of them. I've come to recognize a lot of good, fine people who won't talk to me or deal with me."

'The fiduciary was here'

Wisan wastes little time.

First up is a tour of an abandoned building the Colorado City Unified School District wants to trade for UEP land. The district itself was taken over by the state of Arizona after allegations of financial mismanagement.

Carol Timpson, the new superintendent, leads Wisan and ex-FLDS accountant Jethro Barlow on a tour through the old classrooms like a Realtor showing off a "fixer-upper."

"It also has great use for business," she says, unlocking doors and leading them through rooms. "It can also handle industrial, it has use for that."

In one room, Wisan walks up to a chalkboard and writes "the fiduciary was here."

Wisan next drives to Cottonwood Park, a sprawling place of children's playgrounds, trees and picnic tables. The grass is dying because there was no power for sprinkler systems. Power was shut off when the FLDS abandoned the park after ex-members rededicated a monument to the infamous 1953 raid on Short Creek, where polygamists were rounded up and put in jail.

Jeffs had ordered the original monument to the polygamist raid destroyed in 2003. His order is on a secretly recorded sermon obtained by the Deseret Morning News.

"Verily I say unto you, my servant Warren," Jeffs said, recounting his revelation from God. "My people have sinned a very grievous sin in that they have raised up monuments to man and have not glorified me."

Ex-FLDS members have now taken over caring for the park, contracting with Wisan to do some work in reviving it.

"One of the reasons we want to upkeep the park is to show this town's turning around," said Daniel Chatwin, who left the FLDS Church.

Many ex-members ousted by Jeffs have started moving back into the towns. They're helping Wisan serve tax notices, get the properties together and bring economic development into Hildale and Colorado City.

"The only way we're going to get our lives back is to shut him down," Michael Chatwin said of Jeffs.

Wisan ends his whirlwind tour at the building that housed Western Precision. Linked to the FLDS Church, the manufacturing business recently left Hildale and moved to the Las Vegas area. Many FLDS members have followed.

Wisan is working to resolve issues over what in the company belongs to the UEP. During his visit Thursday, he met with some potential buyers of the property.

"They're talking about 100-200 jobs. People moving in, houses needing to be built," he said.

The future UEP

In a way, Wisan said running the UEP is similar to running a business.

"You've got property issues to deal with, taxes to deal with, revenue to generate, expenses to pay. You've got a myriad of personnel issues to deal with," he said. "I have a lot of customers, I guess, beneficiaries of the trust."

After more than a year, resistance to the fiduciary may be wearing down. Wisan said he is getting some "professional cooperation" from a few FLDS members.

"They're doing their duty and they're not bending over backwards to help me, but they are communicating and getting things done," he said.

A few times, Wisan has had to get his lawyers involved, particularly to grill Hildale and Colorado City town marshals about their loyalties to Jeffs and missing property belonging to the UEP.

The UEP will start its transition with a judge's signature. Wisan hopes to step aside in the next six months or so and let a new board of trustees take over.

In the proposed reform plan, community property would ultimately be subdivided and privatized. A number of "spendthrift" trusts would be created, placing assets and property in the control of a trustee until the recipients are deemed able to control it themselves.

Lawyers for the fiduciary said religious beliefs have been "carved out" of the UEP.

"I'm hoping that the community will begin to heal," said Carolyn Jessop, an ex-FLDS member who is on the revised UEP's board of advisers. "It was just a fraudulent system. It was creating a lot of economic hardship for the community."

However, Judge Denise P. Lindberg said she is troubled that any attempts to reach the estimated 10,000 FLDS faithful who will be affected by the changes have been met with silence.

"I just wish there was some way to reach that community," Lindberg said at a court hearing on the reformation earlier this month.

Wisan told the Deseret Morning News he expects Jeffs will continue to exert some influence over the communities.

"I've always heard that the mob was able to run their organization from behind bars," he said. "Warren has an organization and is very good at control, and I figure he'll manage to continue that."

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