U.S. News

U.S. polygamous church leaders plead not guilty to food stamp fraud

SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Two leaders of a Utah-based polygamous faith on Wednesday pleaded not guilty to charges that they and other church members committed food stamp fraud and money laundering.

Lyle Jeffs and John Clifton Wayman entered the not-guilty pleas to a two-count indictment before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dustin Pead in Salt Lake City. Jeffs is the de facto leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), an unacknowledged offshoot of the Mormon Church.

The two men are being held in jail pending bail and detention hearings in federal court.

Jeffs is the brother of Warren Jeffs, who is considered the prophet of the faith and is serving a prison sentence of up to life in prison plus 20 years in Texas for illegally marrying and sexually abusing underage girls.

The sect is based in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. It is an offshoot of the Salt Lake City-based mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which renounced polygamy in 1890 and has no affiliation with the FLDS.

The charges against Lyle Jeffs and Wayman allege that they and other FLDS leaders in Arizona and South Dakota diverted money from the federal government food assistance program for the poor. In all, the indictment charges 11 defendants with conspiring to defraud the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistants Program (SNAP), or food stamps, and conspiring to commit money laundering.

Prosecutors contend that in about 2011 the church leaders directed adherents to funnel food bought with SNAP money to an FLDS storehouse to feed the greater church community.

“These leaders also provided instructions on how to avoid suspicions and detection by the government,” the indictment said.

Money also was diverted to other leaders to pay bills, according to the charges. One spent $30,236 on a 2012 Ford F-350 truck and another paid $16,978 for paper products, prosecutors said.

If the defendants are convicted, the federal government will seek forfeiture of any property, real or personal, and a money judgment “equal to the value of all property involved in the money laundering,” according to the indictment.

Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Jonathan Oatis