Polygamous sect leaders facing charges of food stamp fraud

SALT LAKE CITY -- Investigators say they noticed something strange when they began tracking food stamp transactions coming out of two small convenience stores in a polygamous community on the Arizona-Utah border.

See Full Article

The volume of food stamp purchases was so large that it rivaled big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Costco.

They said they later learned that residents were scanning their food stamp debit cards at the stores but getting no items in return, letting leaders of the polygamous sect divert the money to front companies. The proceeds paid for a John Deere loader, a Ford truck and $17,000 in paper products, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.

The alleged scheme is at the heart of what marked a major takedown of top leaders of the secretive sect in which followers adhere to the belief that having multiple wiveIs brings exaltation in heaven.

Eleven people were charged with food stamp fraud and money laundering, including Lyle Jeffs and Seth Jeffs, top-ranking leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and brothers of imprisoned sect leader Warren Jeffs.

Lyle Jeffs runs the day-to-day operations in the polygamous community of Hildale, Utah, while Seth Jeffs leads a branch of the group in South Dakota. Their brother Warren Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered brides at a secretive church compound in that state.

Prosecutors accuse church leaders of orchestrating a yearslong fraud scheme that included meetings where they told members how to use the use food-stamp benefits illegally for the benefit of the faith and avoid getting caught, charging documents show.

One common tactic was buying groceries with the food stamps and giving the supplies to the church's communal storehouse for leaders to choose how to divvy up.

The practice has been called "bleeding the beast," taking money from a government they disdain and using as they see fit, said Amos Guiora, a University of Utah law professor who has studied the church.

The arrests - which were made Tuesday in Salt Lake City; Custer County, South Dakota; and the sister cities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona - are the government's latest move targeting the sect based on the Utah-Arizona border, coinciding with legal battles in two states over child labour and discrimination against nonbelievers.

The arrests come amid a civil rights trial in Phoenix against the twin polygamous towns of Hildale and Colorado City, Arizona, in which prosecutors say the communities discriminated against people who were not members of the church by denying them housing, water services and police protection.

Federal labour lawyers also are going after the group on allegations that leaders ordered parents to put their kids to work for long hours for little pay on a southern Utah pecan farm.

The communities deny those allegations.

Prosecutors said the actions in this new case weren't coordinated. But Sam Brower, a private investigator who has spent years investigating the group, said one common theme in all the cases is that authorities are finding more willing witnesses with inside knowledge because large numbers of people who have been kicked out or left.

Lyle Jeffs and Seth Jeffs and the others are expected to make their initial court appearances in Wednesday in three different federal states.

Federal prosecutors are asking the judge to keep them behind bars, arguing in court documents that they are flight risks. They contend if allowed out on bail, they polygamists are likely to flee and seek hiding in the group's elaborate network of houses throughout North and South America, using aliases, disguises, false identification documents and pre-paid cellphones to help people avoid being caught.

The sect does not have a spokesman or a phone listing where leaders can be contacted. The Associated Press could not verify if the defendants had attorneys yet.

Blake Hamilton, an attorney representing Hildale, said none of those indicted was serving in a government position and that it had nothing to do with the city government.

U.S. Attorney John Huber said repeatedly Tuesday that the indictment was not about religion, but fraud.

Guiora said the bust goes well beyond fraud - putting in doubt who will lead the group and how members will respond to a decisive message from government officials they have historically despised.

Associated Press writers Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix and Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this report



Advertisements

Latest Canada & World News

  • Experts inspect Greek quake damage; islanders sleep outdoors

    World News CTV News
    KOS, Greece -- Crews of experts on Saturday began examining the damage to infrastructure and cultural monuments on the eastern Greek island of Kos after a powerful earthquake killed two tourists and injured nearly 500 others in the Aegean Sea region that stretches to Turkey's sprawling coast. Source
  • Trump Jr., Manafort may be interviewed privately by senators

    World News CTV News
    WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump's eldest son and his former campaign chairman won't be forced to testify publicly next week and are instead discussing being privately interviewed by a Senate committee investigating Russia's meddling in the 2016 election, the panel said. Source
  • Home Alone, Sopranos actor John Heard dead at 71

    World News CBC News
    Actor John Heard, seen in Los Angeles in this August 2, 2013, file photo, has died. (Mark Davisé/Getty Images) John Heard, best known for his roles in Home Alone, Big, and Beaches, died Friday. Source
  • Trump fires off volley of angry tweets on Russia probe

    World News Toronto Sun
    WASHINGTON — Hours before he was to help commission a new aircraft carrier at a patriotic ceremony on the Virginia coast, President Donald Trump fired off a volley of early morning tweets that again showed how furious he remains over multiple investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Source
  • 16-year-old German girl among 26 foreigners arrested in Iraq after fall of Mosul

    World News CBC News
    Three Iraqi intelligence and investigative officials have told The Associated Press that 26 foreigners — including two men, eight children and 16 women — have been arrested in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and taken to Baghdad. Source
  • Whale rescue group missions still on hold after volunteer's death

    Canada News CTV News
    Whale rescue groups are still waiting for the green light to head out and help entangled right whales after the death of one volunteer put missions on hold. The Campobello Whale Rescue Team’s boat remains tied to the dock even though a North Atlantic right whale is entangled in fishing gear in the Gulf of St. Source
  • Transgender inmate in B.C. wins right to move to a federal prison for women

    Canada News CTV News
    VANCOUVER -- A transgender inmate in British Columbia has won a years-long battle to serve the remainder of her sentence for first-degree murder at a women's prison. Fallon Aubee is one of the first federal prisoners to relocate under policy changes at Correctional Services Canada that allow inmates to transfer facilities based on gender identity and not physical anatomy, said Jennifer Metcalfe, a spokeswoman for the West Coast Prison Justice Society. Source
  • Philippines extends martial law in region under siege by Muslim militants

    World News CBC News
    The Philippine Congress on Saturday overwhelmingly approved the president's appeal for martial law in the south to be extended to the end of the year to help troops quell a two-month siege by ISIS-linked militants and stamp out similar extremist plots in the volatile region. Source
  • Mexico murders up with deadliest month in at least 20 years

    World News CTV News
    MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's spiraling violence reached new heights with 2,234 murders in June, the country's deadliest month in at least 20 years, according to government data. Killings rose in states ranging from the tourist haven of Baja California Sur to the Gulf coast state of Veracruz and even in Mexico City, long considered a relative oasis from drug gang violence. Source
  • Al Gore says Trudeau 'a real breath of fresh air' on climate change

    Canada News Toronto Sun
    TORONTO — While Al Gore has plenty of praise for Justin Trudeau’s efforts to combat climate change, he says there’s still room for improvement on the prime minister’s environmental agenda. Trudeau makes a brief cameo in Gore’s new climate-change documentary “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. Source