FBI, S.L. County probe alleges fraud, sexual trysts in FLDS 'lost boys' program

Published: Wednesday, March 14 2012 2:00 p.m. MDT

Former lost boy Kevin Black, left, along with volunteer Jami Christensen stand inside a housing unit for FLDS "lost boys" in St. George July 25, 2007. Christensen, who died of a drug overdose in 2010, had a relationship with an AmeriCorps director who is a target of a fraud investigation.

Jeffrey D. Allred,

SALT LAKE CITY — Fraud, deceit, sexual trysts and an untimely death make up a sordid tale investigators say they uncovered among those who ran a government-funded shelter for "lost boys" of the polygamous FLDS Church.

A yearlong investigation by the FBI and the Salt Lake County Auditor's Office resulted in federal prosecutors going to a grand jury seeking criminal charges against Richard Parks, the county's AmeriCorps program administrator for the past eight years.

Parks, 64, of Salt Lake City, was indicted Wednesday on 25 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, making false statements and theft from a program receiving federal funds. The indictment seeks $95,154 in restitution.

"It's an incredible story," said Jim Wightman, the county auditor's director of compliance and performance assessment. "It's off the charts. It involves so many aspects of Utah culture."

Though the case doesn't involve huge sums of money, its tentacles reach the Utah Legislature, the Utah Attorney General's Office, Salt Lake County and St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson, who is accused of an Internet marketing scam.

Auditors discovered a "remarkable lack" of county and state oversight of the program, according to a 78-page Salt Lake County Auditor's report obtained by the Deseret News. The report also found:

• AmeriCorps workers at the lost boys shelter were overpaid a total of $21,937. (Workers are volunteers who receive a stipend for completing contracted service hours.)

• Parks allegedly encouraged AmeriCorps workers in St. George to falsify time cards.

• The shelter's clinical director and others were paid for full-time work though they enrolled as half-time AmeriCorps workers.

• Parks allegedly obtained reimbursements for trips to St. George that were not business-related but to carry on an affair with an AmeriCorps worker.

Reached at his home, Parks said he did not want to comment on the allegations. Parks' attorney, Greg Skordas, said he tried to resolve the allegations prior to the indictment, but couldn't reach an agreement with federal prosecutors.

"We have a difference of opinion on his culpability," Skordas said.

From October 2006 to October 2008, Salt Lake County's AmeriCorps program had an agreement with the nonprofit New Frontiers for Families and its House Just Off Bluff project.

The eight-bedroom home near Bluff Street in St. George served as a haven for boys fleeing from or being kicked out of the FLDS communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. AmeriCorps, a national service organization that relies on volunteers, provided workers for the shelter.

In addition to the AmeriCorps grant, New Frontiers received $250,000 from the Utah Legislature for the shelter. Johnson, a one-time multimillionaire philanthropist whom federal authorities indicted and sued in connection with alleged Internet marketing fraud, donated use of the house.

St. George officials closed the shelter in October 2008 amid allegations that clinical director Michelle Benward was not properly licensed and that the house violated city zoning laws. Benward was fired at the same time.

Benward later acted as the "whistleblower" in the case, Wightman said. She brought the pay and timecard irregularities to Salt Lake County's attention in December 2010. Salt Lake County ran the program because Washington County, where the shelter was located, did not have an AmeriCorps grant.

Benward, too, received payments she was not entitled to under AmeriCorps policy, according to the audit.

"We chose not to target her," Wightman said. "But she was working it from every angle."

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