Polygamous sect padded coffers with food stamps, says Justice Department

Eleven members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were arrested Tuesday on charges of food stamp fraud and money laundering for a years-long scheme involving the illegal use of food stamps for the church's benefit.

Chris Caldwell/The Spectrum & Daily News/AP
Law enforcement officers investigate in Hildale, Utah, on Tuesday after several top leaders from Warren Jeffs' polygamous sect were arrested on federal accusations of food stamp fraud and money laundering, marking one of the biggest crackdowns on the group in years.

Eleven members of a polygamous sect on the Arizona-Utah border were arrested Tuesday on charges of food stamp fraud and money laundering.

Federal investigators say leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS Church), a large restorationist Mormon denomination previously led by Warren Jeffs, were involved in the planning and execution of the food stamp scheme for years, which involved the FLDS church’s members using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) illegally to provide resources for the faith.

“The indictment alleges church leaders diverted SNAP proceeds from authorized beneficiaries to leaders of the FLDS Church for use by ineligible beneficiaries and for unapproved purposes,” according to a Department of Justice release from the Utah District US Attorney’s Office. “A large percentage of FLDS Church members living in the Hildale, Utah – Colorado City, Arizona, community known as Short Creek receive SNAP benefits, amounting to millions of dollars in benefits per year.”

According to the DOJ, the church members involved in the scheme would use their stamps and give the food they received straight to the FLDS, let others use their SNAP cards, and swipe their cards at stores affiliated with the church without buying anything, leaving proceeds for the owners. The federal indictment also said that the fraud financed a nearly $17,000 purchase of paper products, more than $13,000 in payments on a John Deere tractor, and more than $30,000 in payments on a Ford pickup truck.

Among those arrested were Lyle and Seth Jeffs, brothers to the imprisoned Warren, who was convicted of child sexual assault in 2011. In addition to the Hilldale-Colorado City area, arrests were made in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Custer County, South Dakota.

“This indictment is not about religion. This indictment is about fraud,” US Attorney John W. Huber said in the DOJ release.

“This is a clear drawing of that magical line in that sand that government will not tolerate crimes committed in the name of religion,” University of Utah law professor Amos Guiora told the Associated Press. Professor Guiora added that FLDS members referred to the food stamp scheme as “bleeding the beast,” taking money from the government they did not care for and putting it to their own uses. Guiora said that the arrests of top church officials could have a significant impact on FLDS operations if they are eventually convicted.

“There are clear questions about who is going to lead a flock that is very leadership dependent,” Guiora said to the AP.

Other federal actions against FLDS practices include a civil rights trial currently underway against the Short Creek communities alleging its residents discriminated against people not associated with the church. Government lawyers are also looking into allegations that FLDS leaders made parents put their children to work for long hours with low pay on a Utah farm.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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