OPINION – The state has gotten itself into an awful mess.
Earlier this week, it found itself in court again regarding the tangled legal events that have ensnared it for eight years now and allowed the state to run up a $5.69 million tab it has become reluctant to pay.
The court appearance was related to administration of the United Effort Plan, which was set up by officials of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an umbrella for church assets and holdings.
A Utah probate court placed the UEP under the oversight of special fiduciary Bruce Wisan when Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the FLDS church, went on the lam when charged with rape as an accomplice charges in Utah. The move was denounced by a federal district court as a venture into “forbidden territory.”
As often happens when attorneys get involved, the lawsuits have mounted and mounted. There is now a very complicated mess.
The UEP remains under state control and the oversight of Wisan. The FLDS Association has not paid a cent in occupancy fees since the UEP was placed in a trust, meaning that most of the homes and businesses in Short Creek since 2005 have been occupied rent-free. Everybody from the 3rd District Court to the Utah Supreme Court has had a say in this matter without a consensus. And, Wisan? His meter has been running all this time, chugging up to the tune of $5.69 million that the state owes him for services rendered.
Tuesday, 3rd District Court Judge Denise Lindberg approved a plan that may resolve the issue. It calls for the state to pay Wisan, then set up a board to oversee the trust.
The plan must now go before the Utah Legislature for approval.
This is what happens when the state drags its heels on an issue when millions of dollars – approximately $110 million, the estimated worth of the UEP – are at stake.
Although the original decision to seize the UEP was atypical, there was reason to believe that the trust was being mismanaged and, with Jeffs on the run, it was a way to try to shut down his access to cash.
Jeffs was eventually captured and stood trial in both Utah and Texas. He is currently serving a life-plus-20-year sentence in a Texas prison.
What should have happened was when that sentence was handed down, Utah officials should have liquidated the assets of the UEP. The funds could have been used to pay off Wisan, with the remainder going to the state. It would have been justified because those living on or using those properties had not paid any rent.
But, when Wisan suggested that, the FLDS Association, which was responsible for those payments, filed a lawsuit.
At that point, then-Attorney General Mark Shurtleff stepped in and muddied the waters by opposing Wisan’s suggestion, prompting Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham to write: “Justice and equity supported the probate court’s award of payment because, as the probate court noted, ‘the Utah AG has taken positions that undermine the Special Fiduciary in this (and the federal) litigation.'”
That’s why, now, there is a bill that has come due with nobody willing to pay it.
So, the Utah Legislature will be taxed with making a decision here, which means the outcome is a crapshoot.
The simple and just way to resolve this is to liquidate the UEP, pay Wisan the money the state owes him, and use the rest for some higher purpose. The trust was valued at $110 million, which means after paying Wisan, $104 million will still be on the table.
I can’t help but wonder, however, why Shurtleff was so reluctant to pay Wisan.
I am also curious about what will happen to all of the cash floating around Short Creek that has not been accounted for in all of this oversight. Churches deal in large amounts of cash, and there is reason to believe there is still some serious cash that was not included in the assessment of the UEP. Where is it? Who controls the purse strings? What will become of that?
The worst possible scenario that could take place, thus making it the most probable course of action, is that a special board will be created to oversee the UEP. There is the danger that members of the polygamous sect could be involved in administering the trust.
A lot has been made of a so-called FLDS offshoot that has been meeting in Short Creek recently and how it is trying to shed its image.
They try to sell it saying the 100 or so people who gather for services then go outside and play volleyball or other activities also cross their hearts and promise that no young girls are being forced into underage marriages.
I’m not buying it.
There’s too much bad history out there and too much evidence that Jeffs is still calling the shots — from his end-of-the-world pronouncements to his banning married couples from sexual activities to his current order that followers sustain themselves on a diet of beans and water.
And that’s just not right.
No bad days!
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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