Keith Johnson, Deseret News
Salt Lake's Rod Parker is viewed by a Utah colleague as a top legal mind who is not a self-promoter.

He is not a member of the FLDS Church. Nor is he a member of the LDS Church, though he used to be.

Rod Parker, the Salt Lake attorney who the past two months emerged as the front man for the Fundamentalist LDS Church, is a Catholic.

The question about Parker's religious affiliation, specifically if he is a polygamist, inevitably came up during frequent news conferences in Texas the past two months.

"The answer is that I'm not," he said.

But the Utah native and Olympus High School graduate did find out through a genealogy search that he descends from the fifth wife of a polygamous grandfather or great-grandfather. (He can't remember which.)

Outside of being thrust into the spotlight of the nation's largest child custody case, Parker, 49, lives a rather vanilla life. He describes himself as boring. Hobbies include woodworking and astronomy.

Parker lives with his wife, Lynn, and four children ages 7 to 16 on Salt Lake City' east bench. He earned bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Utah. He worked 18 months in the George H.W. Bush administration as an associate deputy attorney general, handling mostly land and natural resources issues.

Parker specializes in family law as well as litigation and appeals in several areas. Clients have included Envirocare (now EnergySolutions) in an antitrust case, Lamborghini in a dealership termination and Toyota and General Electric in product liability.

"One concern I have is being pigeonholed as doing this (representing the FLDS Church) and nothing else. The market for representing fundamentalist Mormons is a very small market," he said.

Local attorney Brent Hatch, who has known Parker for 20 years, describes him as insanely bright and a brilliant writer.

"I really think he's one of the top legal minds in our community," he said.

Unlike some high-powered attorneys, flamboyance does not figure into his persona. "He's not a self-promoter at all," Hatch said. "There are some people who are recognized as big-time lawyers who can't hold a candle to Rod."

The large desk in Parker's downtown office at Snow, Christensen & Martineau in the historic Newhouse Building is littered with legal correspondence. FLDS Church files anchor both ends, while the middle is strewn with documents from his other cases, the ones he has neglected the past two months. He had 275 voice mails waiting for him.

"My other work is in a general state of chaos," he said.

So how did a Mormon-turned-Catholic with latent polygamist roots come to represent a group of people whose religious practices, particularly underage marriage, turn off most Americans?

Happenstance mostly.

The law firm's association with the church goes back nearly 20 years. (The FLDS Church does not have any lawyers among its members. Doctors, nurses and lots of EMTs but no lawyers, Parker said.)

When Parker returned from Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s, he was asked to write a brief for an FLDS case. The primary attorney for the church later took another job and the work fell to Parker.

His perception of polygamists back then was based on infamous characters of the 1980s like John Singer, Ervil LeBaron and Alex Joseph.

"I guess I looked at it through those eyes, like everybody else did. I did not think too much about it," he said.

Since then Parker and his family have become well acquainted with the sect based in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Lynn Parker, a nurse, visited the midwifery complex and has quilted with some of the women. The Parker children have participated in the polygamist group's harvest festival.

"I feel like I know so much more about what their church believes than what my church believes," Parker said.

The law firm promises to be a client's advocate, adviser and voice. "We will act as your negotiator, mediator, partner and protector," according to its Web site.

Those are roles Parker has deftly played for the FLDS Church.

"Rod is very much a constitutional lawyer. He does not judge people. He looks at their legal rights regardless of who they are," Lynn Parker said.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is a frequent adversary of Parker, both in court and on the podium in a couple of polygamy debates.

Shurtleff initially declined to talk about Parker, citing the old adage, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

But on second thought, he said, "I will say something nice about him. He's been primarily motivated to look out for the rank and file members of the FLDS Church."

Nevertheless, Shurtleff says Parker is guided too much by church leaders. "He's almost a paid lobbyist or lackey for them, so he only repeats their line," the attorney general said.

Parker doesn't appreciate what he says have become personal attacks on him, calling it a "juvenile" thing. "I try to stick to the issues," he said.

Truth be told, both have sniped at each other. Parker saying Shurtleff only goes after polygamists for political gain, and Shurtleff retorting Parker is in it only for monetary gain.

Speaking of money, word is Parker has made a fortune as the FLDS attorney. The Parkers say it isn't true.

"We're all wondering where the fortune is," Lynn Parker said. "We're not seeing it."

Shurtleff, Parker said, has caused a lot of harm to the FLDS community by promulgating stereotypes and prejudice with public statements he can't back up.

"He's done that on the basis of having listened to some dissidents and people who are selling books," Parker said.

One of them is Carolyn Jessop, a former plural wife of YFZ Ranch leader Merrill Jessop. She came to know Parker when her former husband retained him in a contentious child custody fight.

"I don't know how he sleeps at night with his conscience," said the author of the New York Times best-seller "Escaped," who ultimately won custody of her eight children.

"I think the guy is an absolute slime bucket who knows full well women and children are being abused and gets out there and backs the perpetrator."

For his part, Parker said lawyers have an ethical obligation to zealously defend their clients, polygamists included.

"I do think they deserve representation," he said. "I think they get a raw deal a lot of the time."

Parker also acted as counsel for ousted polygamous Hildale judge Walter Steed and former Hildale police officer Rodney Holm, who was convicted of bigamy.

Though his legal work for the church goes back more than 15 years, he wasn't actively representing it when the Texas Department of Child Protective Services raided the YFZ Ranch in April.

Parker and the church parted ways about three years ago because it decided not to contest two lawsuits — one by the so-called "Lost Boys" who were kicked out of community and a sexual abuse claim by now-jailed FLDS leader Warren Jeffs' nephew, Brent Jeffs. Parker believed the suits were defensible. Both were settled out of court last year.

Still, when FLDS Church elder Willie Jessop called asking for help in Eldorado, Parker dropped everything.

"They really needed help. It was the kind of call you cannot say 'no' to," he said.

Parker didn't do much lawyering during the several weeks he spent in Texas. Rather, he assumed the role of public spokesman for the church. Though he has dealt with the reporters on FLDS issues over the years, he wasn't prepared for the media horde that descended on the ranch. He learned to deal with it on the fly. The only image-conscious decision he made beforehand was to not wear a tie.

"I didn't want to look too lawyer-ish," he said.

His lack of neckwear likely didn't make much difference in the public perception of the FLDS Church in light of the Texas raid. But his urging church members to be more open with the press, particularly allowing reporters on the ranch to interview distraught mothers, did. The move changed the tone of the evolving story from largely hostile to more sympathetic.

At one point, a report asked Parker to identify the public relations firm behind the shift in public attitude. "It's me," he replied. "It's me and Willie Jessop."

Parker has been both praised and denigrated for representing a group whose lifestyle often elicits disgust, especially when it involves teenage brides.

"You get people who look at you a little funny like 'Why would you be doing this?'" he said.

On the other hand, he recently received an e-mail from a lawyer friend congratulating him on a "damn fine job on behalf of an unpopular cause. You are the only lawyer I know who has lived up to the highest traditions of the American bar. I'm sure you have taken a lot of crap about this representation, so I hope it evens things up a little to know that your friends are very proud to know you."

Parker proved unflappable on network news programs as detractors and reporters tried to bait him. "Even with the blow torch turned on him, he handled it well," Hatch said.

The potential fallout for representing an unpopular client isn't lost on Parker.

"There's a professional price to pay for becoming so associated with a client like this," he said. "For sure, we get some backlash for that professionally."

But that didn't deter Parker from standing up for what he believes is right in the wake of the Texas raid.

"I never had any doubt that what the state had done was wrong and that we were on the right side of the fight. Sometimes, as the lawyer, you question if you're on the right side of the fight, but in this case it was obvious."

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