Judge Denise Lindberg, who for three years has been overseeing attempts to untangle the intricate financial and ownership affairs of a religious organization, reassured one of its leaders Thursday that she has no religious prejudices and wants to see a fair distribution of property.
Willie Jessop, a spokesman for the Fundamentalist LDS Church, stood up in court at what was intended to be a routine update on the progress of the undertaking and asked the 3rd District judge to clarify a remark Jessop said he heard in which Lindberg allegedly said she would never allow FLDS people to own property.
The judge denied having any bias and said she wanted to treat all those involved equally.
"I certainly am not going to put a religious test on the eventual distribution of property," Lindberg said.
The judge said what she put in place was a process to determine who owned what in the polygamous communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., and create opportunities for people to own their own properties.
However, when individuals eventually gain ownership of property, there could be certain restrictions.
The court took charge of the United Effort Plan in 2005 after allegations arose that FLDS Church leader Warren Jeffs and others were mismanaging millions in funds and other assets. The UEP, which owns land, homes and businesses, was founded on the concept of a "united order" in which members gave everything to the church and received what church leaders permitted them to have.
Lindberg appointed a special fiduciary, Salt Lake accountant Bruce Wisan, to determine who owned what and how property should be divided. Wisan has said repeatedly that this task has been complicated by the fact that many people in the community refuse to provide records or even communicate with him. He said he has held five town meetings and only one active FLDS member has attended.
Jessop, who spoke in court informally at first and then under oath, said he had been told by Wisan that Lindberg had announced no FLDS would ever own property.
Wisan denied that he or the judge had ever said that.
"He must have a faulty memory," Wisan said about Jessop.
Wisan said the two men met previously and Wisan explained there were two ways the properties could be distributed: through a sort of homeowner's association that would have certain communal aspects that some people in the area apparently want, or through a special trust that would provide individuals with property but would restrict that person from giving it to a new United Effort Plan, or "UEP 2," which would spark the same types of legal disputes all over again.
"He did not like that," Wisan said.
Jessop publicly thanked Lindberg for clarifying a misunderstanding he said had been troubling the community for a long time. The judge, in turn, repeatedly invited Jessop and other FLDS members to take part in the property distribution process, including sitting on a board that works with Wisan or attending any court hearings.
"I want them to be there," she said. "I want them to participate and get their fair share."
Lindberg said she would do what she could to repair any breakdown in communications.
"If you want, I will come and meet with anybody you want me to meet," she said.
A key problem in this long-standing legal morass is the fact that there has been little or no participation from the FLDS community, she said. Among other things, there currently are seven separate lawsuits pending.
As a result, the legal fees are mounting and that is depleting assets that should go to the people who built the homes, farmed the land and created the businesses."It is distressing that these monies are going to experts and lawyers rather than the beneficiaries," Lindberg said.