A judge issued a ruling Wednesday that essentially eliminates any religious influence over the assets of a trust that emerged from a secretive polygamous sect and lays the groundwork for the trust to operate independently.
Third District Judge Denise Lindberg released a 30-page decision that sets out operating guidelines for the United Effort Plan (UEP), which controls land, buildings and other assets in the adjoining polygamist strongholds of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
The trust has been associated with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which practices polygamy and whose leader, Warren Jeffs, is on the FBI's most wanted list for alleged crimes unrelated to the trust.
The Utah Attorney General's Office asked for court intervention because law enforcement officials feared the trust's assets were being misused and trustees weren't acting in the best interest of all church members.
"These are difficult issues, and we appreciate the time and effort that Judge Lindberg has put into the trust," said Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. "This memorandum will protect people who have donated money and time to the trust and make it possible for them to keep their homes."
Lindberg said in her decision that the UEP should be guided by a 1998 revised, or "restated," version of the trust, rather than the original 1942 document. The trust was formed in which members willingly turned over their property to the church. Only members in good standing could build homes on church land, but they were tenants at will by church leaders.
The 1998 version completely replaced the original document, according to Lindberg, and the new document made clear that the UEP is a "charitable" rather than "private" trust.
That legal distinction is important because a charitable trust is allowed to operate in perpetuity and does not need identifiable beneficiaries. A private trust is limited in the number of years it can operate and it has to vest its assets in a specific, identifiable beneficiary. Without such beneficiaries, it could be declared void.
Also in her decision, Lindberg appointed a board of advisers to help Bruce Wissan, a Salt Lake accountant working as a count-appointed special fiduciary temporarily managing the trust.
The advisers are Margaret Cooke, Robert Huddleston, Carolyn Jessop, Rayo Spencer Johnson, John Nielsen and Don Timpson, all of whom are not considered active FLDS members.
Lindberg said she was aware that active FLDS members have chosen not to participate in the court-related proceedings, but if FLDS members change their minds, she would consider possibly appointing them to the board.
Lindberg said in her decision that specific claims against the trustees have not been proven, but they did fail to protect the trust against pending lawsuits and also did not follow court orders requesting an accounting of trust assets and information about how the trust was administered.
Lindberg acknowledged that the court must allow for some church input into the trust because that was obviously intended by those who drew up the 1998 trust document. But when new trustees are appointed, they must follow "neutral principles" in handling the trust for "lawful purposes."
This presents problems if FLDS ecclesiastical leaders make decisions about who can benefit because former or inactive church members could be excluded from consideration, even though they contributed to the trust.
Lindberg said this can be resolved by providing new trustees with neutral criteria to evaluate the needs of potential beneficiaries; permitting FLDS Church leaders to offer "non-binding input" to the trustees; and provide potential beneficiaries with a means that is independent of church leaders for establishing their "just wants."
"In making decisions on these issues, trustees should be free to use their life experience, good judgment and common sense in evaluating requests for support," Lindberg wrote.
The judge is seeking feedback from interested parties regarding their ideas for reforming the trust.
Salt Lake attorney Roger Hoole, who represents a group of former FLDS young men suing the UEP and Warren Jeffs, said Wednesday he was anxious to read the judge's decision.
"I can tell you we are focused on supporting this effort and assisting in any way that we can," he said.
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