Wisan making few friends as trust overseer

Salt Lake Tribune/May 28, 2007
By Brooke Adams

They have a litany of nicknames for him: Bruce Almighty, Uncle Bruce, Wisepants and the State Ordained Bishop, among them.

Yes, that makes Bruce R. Wisan an S.O.B., which he finds hilarious. At least they're talking about him, if not to him.

For the past two years, at a judge's request, Wisan has overseen a property trust once run by polygamist Warren S. Jeffs and other leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Some beneficiaries of the trust love what he is doing, some despise it - and some hold both feelings at once.

Wisan just keeps plowing ahead. "You can't please everybody," he says.

The certified public accountant, who has a distinctive Daddy Warbucks look, describes himself as "tenacious, a little combative and a little aggressive." That is, perfectly suited for the role of a receiver or fiduciary.

Wisan is an old hand at running other people's businesses. He has overseen a motel in Provo, a wedding reception center in Layton, and a bowling alley/cafe/bar in Orem - where the bartender threw down his apron in disgust and walked out when Wisan arrived.

So Wisan asked a handful of regulars if any of them knew how to tend bar. One said yes and minutes later Wisan had put him to work.

None of these "second" jobs, however, involved the challenges Wisan faces in his current capacity as caretaker of the United Effort Plan Trust, the $114 million trust created about 70 years ago in southern Utah by polygamists.

"A black hole."

Wisan was drawn into the post by Tim Bodily of the Utah Attorney General's Office. In a case years earlier, Bodily enlisted Wisan to sell off inventory at a used appliance business to pay back taxes. Then, when it didn't make money operating legally, Wisan simply shut it.

In 2005, Bodily called Wisan as the state alleged the trust's assets were being pilfered by its FLDS trustees and left undefended against lawsuits. The trust holds virtually all land and buildings in Hildale, Utah; Colorado City, Ariz.; and Bountiful, British Columbia.

"He said [the job] could last a year to five years and it was pretty complicated," Wisan recalls. "The whole thing was total unknowns, a black hole. There were a lot of risks."

Among them: Getting paid. Wisan quickly reclaimed a 1,311-acre property that FLDS leaders attempted to transfer out of the trust. He sold it for $1.5 million and socked it away to cover his fees and those of his attorneys.

Then he went to work.

Wisan has been unrelenting in hunting down missing property and battling over ownership of businesses, buildings, a farm and documents when Jeffs was arrested nearly nine months ago. In February, he auctioned off a state-of-the-art building that once housed a high-tech machine shop for $1.65 million.

This month, he seized an alfalfa farm in Beryl to satisfy an $8.8 million default judgment against Jeffs and other former FLDS trustees for mismanaging the trust.

Wisan played hardball when FLDS members refused to send him property tax payments, posting notices on nearly every home in the twin towns advising residents to pay up or face eviction. In a concession, Wisan allowed payments to be made directly to the counties so FLDS didn't have to deal with him.

Other items on Wisan's "done" list: The FLDS trustees were suspended and replaced with a new advisory board; the trust has been rewritten; and two of three lawsuits that targeted trust assets have been settled. Wisan also instigated ongoing investigations of the Colorado City Town Marshal's Office, whose deputies he accused of obstructing his work.

Today, he says he would "like to privatize the trust as much as possible. If I could, I would like to dissolve the trust."

Wisan has had unexpected success, Bodily says, given the "hostile environment, lack of records and circumstances he faced."

But Wisan "is a risk-taker and he's thick-skinned and he's a mover," Bodily said. "Once he's done due diligence, he has the strength to pursue and take that big step."

"Say nothing."

Meanwhile, the FLDS, who are the majority in the twin towns, have maintained a stoic silence. They have stayed away from Wisan's informational meetings in Hildale, considering him an interloper in cahoots with apostates in a state-orchestrated scheme to destroy their community, their church and their charitable trust.

The trust, set up in the 1940s, was intended to provide a safe haven for fundamentalist Mormons engaged in polygamy, a place that would provide homes and jobs far from government intrusion and public disdain.

Wisan has done "everything possible" to reach out to the FLDS, said Robert C. Huddleston, former Dixie College president and an advisory board member. "Unfortunately, their leadership wants nothing to do with it," he said.

Wisan said Jeffs instructed his followers to avoid him, a "say nothing, do nothing" order that carried the threat of disfellowship and, worse, loss of their family.

"Certainly, I would like more cooperation but I wouldn't want to cause any more pain and agony for the people to whom I'm speaking," Wisan said.

Bodily called the lack of FLDS participation a "surprising turn."

"We were just wanting the fiduciary in there to protect the trust," Bodily said. "But since no one was willing to cooperate, I'm not sure [Wisan] had any other options other than to" liquidate the trust.

Privatization of the trust will, in fact, be the culmination of a battle begun 22 years ago by dissidents who resisted efforts of FLDS leaders to kick them out of their homes.

But it may be Wisan's biggest challenge. For the FLDS faithful, there is no taking back property consecrated to the trust and many are, instead, leaving the community.

Homeowners wanted.

Wisan's push to privatize the trust - by turning residents into homeowners and broadening the towns' economic base - has moved slowly.

Wisan sees homeownership as a "watershed event."

The first step is a nearly completed, $402,000 property survey that will allow residents, now in trust homes as tenants at-will, to seek deeds. The survey was delayed when Hildale and Colorado City officials refused to cooperate, but they reversed course this spring after Wisan sought county approval instead.

So far, Wisan has handed out just one deed: to Richard Holm, who reclaimed a Colorado City home he was kicked out of by Jeffs in 2003.

But Wisan sees the "stretch run" ahead. He and his advisory board have identified 42 "clean" homes with uncontested ownership claims - all from ex-FLDS members - that are awaiting deeds once the survey is recorded.

"Everybody is disappointed with how slow it's been," said Carolyn Jessop, an ex-FLDS member who is on the trust's advisory board. But, "There were a lot of earth-moving things that had to happen to get it to this point. . . . Bruce has done an excellent job."

Holm would like to see Wisan move faster, using warranty or quit-claim deeds to turn over properties rather than wait for official approval of the survey.

Others are outraged by Wisan's stipulation that they pay $5,000 plus recording fees for the deeds, given their years of labor, home construction and monetary donations. Wisan is nonplussed, saying residents should expect to bear the costs of privatizing the trust.

"A thing of the past."

Also moving slowly: Wisan's push to broaden the towns' economic base.

Northwest Land Co., which bought the high-tech building Wisan auctioned earlier this year, has yet to land a tenant.

Wisan is exploring selling other property with development potential - fast-food franchises and an RV storage facility have been discussed - along much-traveled Highway 56, which skirts the towns' west edge.

Holm, once a leading businessman in the community, said development would be better spurred by installing new trustees who are residents. Only two of the six current advisers live in the community. He also said it is time for Wisan to act as an adviser to the board, rather than the other way around.

"What he's done has been okay, but really all the money that has come in has gone to pay his and the attorney's fees," Holm said.

Management and expense fees for the trust have topped $1.6 million so far.

That's hard to justify, said Rod Parker, an attorney who formerly represented the trust and the FLDS church.

"Everything he's done [has] been at the instigation of dissidents and with the result of helping himself and them to the assets of the trust," Parker said. "It should have been obvious from the beginning that the beneficiaries wouldn't go along with it, and they've spent a lot of money proving that true."

In Parker's view, Wisan is "an instrument of a broader crusade" who is, without any restraint, moving far from his original mission of protecting beneficiaries' interests.

But Winston Blackmore, an ex-FLDS member in Canada and former UEP trustee, sees the costs as necessary. Blackmore is the only former trustee who has cooperated with Wisan, which led to him being dropped as a defendant in the mismanagement lawsuit.

Under FLDS trustees, "businesses were looted, retirement funds cashed in, insurance proceeds confiscated, holiday pay taken and many businesses were contributing on behalf of their reluctant employees with money that really belonged to the employee," Blackmore said.

"The UEP as we knew and loved it is a thing of the past, and it requires the efforts of a crass, no-nonsense, unbiased but tough administrator to deal with the issues in the timely manner that [Wisan] has been doing," he said.

Service with a smile:

Wisan believes he can accomplish remaining items on his "to-do" list within the year.

That is partly why he has told 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg it is too soon for him to step aside. His advisory board agrees.

"There are a few major issues we want to tackle," Wisan said, "but I like where we're going and what we've done."

And he holds out hope the FLDS may take part, noting he is treated less rudely in the twin towns these days. During a visit in April, Wisan met with Colorado City Mayor Terrell Johnson, who had previously vowed never to speak to him.

"I can go to a restaurant in the community, get served and get served with a smile," Wisan said.

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