Polygamist leader: Communal living key part of religion

FILE - FLDS Church members leave federal court in this file photo. Salt Lake City, Utah, April 6, 2016 | Photo by and courtesy of Fox 13 News, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A polygamous sect leader who is among a group of people accused of carrying out a multiyear food stamp fraud scheme said Tuesday not sharing the food would prevent him and others from living their religion and being prepared for heaven.

FILE - Seth Jeffs, right, brother of imprisoned polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs, participates in a state water board meeting in Pierre, S.D. Polygamous sect leader Jeffs, charged with fraud, told a judge in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016, that not sharing goods purchased with food stamps would prohibit him and others from living their religion and being prepared for heaven. Salt Lake City, Utah, July 9, 2015 | Photo by AP Photo/James Nord, File, St. George News
FILE – Seth Jeffs, right, brother of imprisoned polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs, participates in a state water board meeting in Pierre, S.D. Polygamous sect leader Jeffs, charged with fraud, told a judge in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016, that not sharing goods purchased with food stamps would prohibit him and others from living their religion and being prepared for heaven. Salt Lake City, Utah, July 9, 2015 | Photo by AP Photo/James Nord, File, St. George News

Seth Jeffs’ testimony came as he and 10 other suspects accused of fraud and money laundering tried to persuade a Utah judge they were following religious tenets of communal living, not breaking the law.

His testimony offered a rare glimpse into the mindset of the secretive group that practices religious principles rooted in the early Mormonism of the 19th century.

Members of the group based in a remote community on the Utah-Arizona border don’t usually talk with outsiders at the behest of their leaders.

Seth Jeffs, who runs the group’s South Dakota compound and is a brother of the group’s imprisoned leader, Warren Jeffs, was the only defendant to take the stand.

The Salt Lake City courtroom was packed with lawyers, defendants and onlookers. About 20 members of the sect sat in one corner, the women wearing their typical prairie dresses and updo hairstyles.

Because each suspect has at least one attorney, there were about 15 lawyers before the judge, making for unique interchanges and exchanges during questioning of the witnesses.

Seth Jeffs testified that they believe everything on earth belongs to God, which is why members must donate everything they own to a community storehouse to follow the “law of consecration.” The group’s leaders decide how best to redistribute the goods to people who are “living the law,” he said.

“Every person has the privilege to turn in everything they have because we believe all is not ours. All belongs to Heavenly Father,” said Seth Jeffs, wearing jail jumpsuit with his hands and feet in cuffs. “I believe the law of consecration is lived in heaven. I’m preparing for that now.”

This June 9, 2016, photo shows FLDS Church members leaving federal court after their leader, Lyle Jeffs, was released from custody and placed under house arrest pending trial in a food stamps fraud case. Salt Lake City, Utah, June 9, 2016 | Image by and courtesy of Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News; St. George News
This June 9, 2016, photo shows FLDS Church members leaving federal court after their leader, Lyle Jeffs, was released from custody and placed under house arrest pending trial in a food stamps fraud case. Salt Lake City, Utah, June 9, 2016 | Image by and courtesy of Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News; St. George News

In a sometimes testy cross-examination of Seth Jeffs, prosecutor Robert Lund went through a long list of food stamp rules to establish Seth Jeffs understood the parameters of the program. When Lund asked him if he asked for a religious accommodation from the federal government, Seth Jeffs said he didn’t know he had to do so.

Prosecutors argue that the defendants knowingly broke the law by not only donating food to a storehouse but diverting funds to front companies and to pay for a tractor, truck and other items. They say sect leaders lived lavishly while low-ranking followers suffered.

U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart in Salt Lake City is weighing whether food stamp rules burden the suspects’ sincerely held religious beliefs. He didn’t rule Tuesday.

He warned defense attorneys twice that he is struggling to understand how the suspects had a burden if they didn’t personally receive food stamps. Defense attorneys say some of their client’s family members, who include multiple wives and many children, receive the benefits.

One important person not in attendance was Lyle Jeffs, the highest-ranking leader ensnarled in the bust. He has been a fugitive for more than three months since he slipped out of a GPS ankle monitor and escaped home confinement in the Salt Lake City area. The FBI has a $50,000 reward for finding him.

Before Seth Jeffs took the stand, an expert on early Mormonism testified that members of the sect hold beliefs strikingly similar to Mormons in the 1800s. Mormon history expert Lyndon Watson Cook said early Mormons would have worried about their eternal salvation if they didn’t follow the communal living guidelines.

“Their language is the language of the 19th century Mormon,” Cook said. “That’s the way they thought and talked.”

Federal prosecutors, though, pointed out that Cook isn’t an expert on the sect, and he acknowledged his opinion is based solely on his reading of affidavits submitted in this case.

Defense attorneys grilled prosecution witness Jeffrey Cohen of the U.S. Department of Agriculture into acknowledging that there are no precise, written regulations that prohibit sharing goods purchased with food stamps. Federal public defender Kathy Nester also pointed that the government has made food stamp accommodations for many unique groups, including an Alaskan tribe that is allowed to purchase arrows for hunting and supplies for fishing.

Cohen said he’s not sure if similar accommodations could be made for the polygamous sect, but he said changes would have to go through Congress. Speaking generally, Cohen said the agency’s believes the overarching rules imply that goods bought by food stamps are only for the eligible household.

The sect, known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is based on the Utah-Arizona border. They believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven — a legacy of the early Mormon church. The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the practice in 1890 and strictly prohibits it today.

The 11 defendants have pleaded not guilty to food stamp fraud and money laundering.

Written by BRADY McCOMBS, Associated Press

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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15 Comments

  • Lori October 4, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    Fine, let them share their own things. Food stamps are paid for by people that actually work. We the people that are providing food for you all to eat all the while we can barely afford to buy groceries for ourselves. If a man wants seven wives and he can provide for them fine but if the tax payers have to take care of his wives I say no fricking way.

  • Utahguns October 5, 2016 at 4:06 am

    You pligs are all nothing but scammers, thieves and child molesters.
    You execute your “duties” to steal, extort, and scam the system. You believe that “bleeding the beast” is your major calling in life. You train your children to shoplift and abscond with basic necessities.
    Your men are insecure dominants who prey on women and children in the “name of God”.

    You follow a misguided and mentally unbalanced “prophet” who rapes young women and leads your cult with self proclaimed rants from a prison cell. You condemn science and technology, yet I see you getting health care at modern hospitals and driving new vehicles.
    The best thing you can do is let your women and children who want to escape your concubines have the chance to lead normal productive and abundant lives.

    You’re all pathetic.

  • digger October 5, 2016 at 6:29 am

    1 Peter 2:13-17
    1 Timothy 3:2

  • .... October 5, 2016 at 6:47 am

    Oh my goodness. golly gee whiz this is a mess my my my what to do what to do the law was violated and it’s pretty much that simple.

  • Common Sense October 5, 2016 at 7:35 am

    They are not living in the mindset and practices of the 1800 or 1900’s. I see these people regularly and the women are wearing blue tooth, tennis shoes and jeans under their dresses. They are buying and drinking energy drinks and driving nice new SUV’s. This is a fact I have witnessed.

  • Real Life October 5, 2016 at 8:33 am

    So which “supreme” being gets to decide which child gets raped in their sick little cult? These women who are “living the law” have to be kept completely stupid. How in the hell else could they have the mindset to sacrifice their own children to these pedophiles?

    • .... October 5, 2016 at 12:19 pm

      Bless you my fellow brethren. Praise the Lord !

    • .... October 5, 2016 at 12:53 pm

      LOL…you tell’em troll !

      • Real Life October 5, 2016 at 2:45 pm

        So the pills didn’t kick in at 12:19, but they were in full effect at 12:53? Or was it the other way around?

  • knobe October 5, 2016 at 9:35 am

    Everyone is free to live ‘communally’ and the taxpayer community is free to Not approve of people using their tax payer funded food stamps to buy new trucks for the big leaders .
    If you want our tax community’s charity food money , follow the rules or experience our freedom to prosecute you for theft .

  • Not_So_Much October 5, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    A cult is a cult.

  • .... October 6, 2016 at 9:08 am

    Yep !

  • Rose2017 October 7, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    It would be so easy to follow the law of the land and avoid trouble, but being “against the law” helps keep the “faithful” feeling special and persecuted so it is a good tactic for those fooling these people into submission to keep them on the wrong side of the law.

    They could of course provide for themselves. I have quite a few children. I work full time. I receive no benefits whatsoever from the state and my taxes support the poor and needy.

    The bottom line is that that the rules that say those who are poor enough, but not others, receive state benefits/food stamps are wise rules. If the FLDS do not think the system of food stamps is acceptable they are welcome to work harder and earn money for their own food.
    The food stamp rules and many Christian principles are similar – we give food to the needy. Here they take food stamps from the mouths of the poor United Order members and ensure obese rich leaders eat lobster and the like with the money stolen from hard working tax paying Americans. It would be no different from if I formed a religion which said my children were to live in poverty, claim benefits and give it all to me – a rich tax payer.
    No one is stopping these men and women earning money or growing crops and sharing those results communally as plenty of us do within our families. We are however stopping them breaking the law, in effect stealing our money as tax payers and deciding to distribute it as they choose, buying trucks with it, faking that they took goods from the nominated store when they did not and that kind of thing.

  • Ron October 7, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    And some of these “prairie dressed “ladies” are some of the most flirtatious “ladies”/ women I have met. I don’t know how “loyal” they claim to be to their so-called men, but damn….if they wore regular clothing they might approach “hot”!!! Hahahaha……but that’s as far as it goes. Flirting. And boy, do they know how to party….they can slam/beer bong them 40s with the best of them.
    But that’s non of my business……

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