FLDS Church Leaders Indicted On Charges Of Food Stamp Fraud
PHOENIX — Eleven members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) have been indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to commit food stamp fraud and money laundering.
Church leaders were among those arrested on Tuesday morning after the federal indictment was unsealed, according to a press release put out by the Utah U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The indictment accuses church leaders of ordering church members to use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to turn over food and funds to the church.
Several of the indicted church members live in Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, towns that were settled by FLDS church members. The FLDS church, which practices polygamy, broke off from the Mormon religion.
According to prosecutors, a large percentage of church members in those towns receive SNAP benefits “amounting to millions of dollars in benefits per year,” according to the U.S. Attorney's press release.
Prosecutors allege church leaders created an elaborate scheme involving multiple front companies to turn church members’ benefits into funds for the church.
Church leaders created a group in 2011 within the church called the "United Order" that required members to turn in all of their material possessions to the church’s storehouse, and only use food, clothing and other items from . According to prosecutors, members with food stamps were required to turn over their benefits to the storehouse in the same way.
“This indictment is not about religion. This indictment is about fraud,” Utah U.S. Attorney John W. Huber said in a statement. “This indictment charges a sophisticated group of individuals operating in the Hildale-Colorado City community who conspired to defraud a program intended to help low-income individuals and families purchase food.”
Among the 11 indicted is Lyle Jeffs, a bishop in the FLDS church and brother to Warren Jeffs, who is considered the church’s prophet. Warren Jeffs is serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting underage girls he took as spiritual wives.
Prosecutors say Lyle Jeffs is running the church’s day-to-day operations since Warren is in prison.
The charges of conspiracy and money laundering could result in five- and 20-year prison sentences, respectively.
The indictment comes as the towns of Colorado City and Hildale are in the midst of a several week civil rights trial brought by the U.S. Justice Department of Justice. The Justice Department is trying to prove the towns act as arms of the FLDS church and discriminate against non-church members.
In the past month, former FLDS church members have testified in that trial about how church leaders directed them to use their food stamps in a fraudulent way.
The civil rights trial against the towns was set to end this week but after the judge fell ill, the trial was suspended until Monday.