ST. GEORGE — Another high-ranking leader in the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints charged in a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud case has been released from jail after accepting a plea deal with federal prosecutors.
During a change of plea hearing Wednesday in Salt Lake City’s U.S. District Court, Seth Jeffs, brother of imprisoned polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, pleaded guilty to Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program fraud.
Under the plea deal, Seth Jeffs, who runs the group’s South Dakota compound, was sentenced to time-served – approximately six months in jail. He will not have to serve probation nor pay restitution and he and his family will not be prosecuted further in the case. He will have to attend a government training class on the proper use of SNAP benefits.
The deal is similar to the one accepted last week by Seth Jeffs’ codefendant, John Wayman, who was also immediately released from jail after entering a guilty plea.
Seth Jeffs and Wayman were among 11 defendants indicted in February on food stamp fraud and money laundering charges for allegedly diverting at least $12 million worth of food stamp benefits from FLDS members.
Prosecutors had alleged that the men counseled sect members to turn over their SNAP benefits to the FLDS Church, using them to fund leaders’ lavish lifestyles.
Other defendants in the case have also been offered deals and negotiations are ongoing, with the exception of Lyle Jeffs, who served as a bishop in the FLDS Church and fled from police custody in the summer. The government said no deal had been offered to Lyle Jeffs.
Outside the courthouse, Seth Jeffs’ attorney, Jay Winward, suggested to FOX 13 Reporter Ben Winslow that his client was prosecuted because he is related to Warren Jeffs.
“This is an investigation that’s gone on for five years. I’m not certain in any other circumstance with any other people, the U.S. government wouldn’t simply ask them to stop what they were doing rather than indicting them,” Winward told FOX 13.
However, the terms of the deals offered to the defendants have evoked criticism from those who see it as a “slap on the wrist” for allegedly carrying out a fraud scheme that bilked taxpayers out of more than $12 million over the course of five years.
Sam Brower, a private investigator who has been researching the FLDS church for the last 12 years, posted a statement on Facebook, noting that Seth Jeffs was already a convicted felon and that it was unjust that he will not even have to serve probation under the deal.
It is the most insane, incompetent, disturbing, and disgraceful miscarriage of justice I’ve ever seen. A deadbeat dad, whose (sic) previously lied to the court, was released with absolutely zero consequences for his actions! Seth could care less if (he) carries another felony. It only increases his stature in the FLDS hierarchy! It would have been better if the US attorneys office never prosecuted the case to begin with, than to hand a gift like this over to Warren Jeffs and his cabal!!!
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Lund told FOX 13 he did not believe the government would be able to recover $12 million, which is why they opted not to seek restitution.
“The people in that community — including some of the defendants — are among the poorest people that live in Utah,” Lund said. “They have no ability to pay restitution.”
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