Members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church are seeking to block the sale of land in the polygamous border towns of Hildale, Washington County, and Colorado City, Ariz., unless the court signs off on it first.
During an emergency hearing Monday in 3rd District Court in Salt Lake City, lawyers for FLDS members Willie Jessop, Dan Johnson and Merlin Jessop sought to halt the sale of any property under the control of the United Effort Plan Trust. Lawyers for both sides agreed to hold off on any transactions until the judge rules on it next month.
"Such sales pose an immediate and fundamental threat to the religious communal lifestyle and beliefs of the community because they threaten its self-sufficiency, and thus are contrary to law, constitutional rights, and the best interests of the people who live on Trust property and rely on it for their sustenance," FLDS lawyer Rod Parker wrote in court papers.
But lawyers for the UEP Trust said the emergency request illustrates the problem that has plagued the FLDS Church's real estate holdings arm since it was taken over by the courts in 2005. They suggested it was a "collateral attack" on the reformed trust.
"Many members of the Trust's beneficiary class simply refuse to recognize the authority and the actions of this court," wrote lawyer Jeffrey L. Shields, who represents the court-appointed special fiduciary. "Such beneficiaries repeatedly ignore this court's rulings, and act as if the former trustees/FLDS religious leaders are, or should be, still in control of the trust."
The courts took control of the UEP Trust amid allegations that Warren Jeffs and other FLDS leaders mismanaged it. A judge signed off on a reform plan, which paves the way for private property ownership, doing away with the early LDS concept of a "united order" upon which the trust was based. For the past three years, trust lawyers claim the FLDS have remained silent on any changes until now.
The trust, which is land-rich but more than $1.25 million in debt, is administered by court-appointed special fiduciary Bruce Wisan, whom Parker said is trying to sell land to raise money.
"The cash crunch continues, and the trust is approaching crisis mode," Shields told the judge on Monday.
"A cash crunch doesn't justify superseding court orders," Parker replied.
Judge Denise Lindberg expressed frustration that FLDS members were just now getting involved.
"These are challenges to the actions of the fiduciary," she said at the conclusion of the hearing. "That's the scheme under which I view it."
Parker said his clients do not want Wisan selling off property without court approval first, and hearings to get input from those who live on UEP land.
"It's a question of accountability," he said.
During an Aug. 14 court hearing, Wisan said he is planning to sell a large parcel of land but refused to divulge details of the transaction. Parker identified it in court documents as Berry Knoll Farm, a swath of land located near the Colorado City airport. He said the land is used to feed the people, with produce going to the FLDS Bishop's Storehouse.
Wisan's lawyers argue that as fiduciary, he has the discretion to sell property and urged the judge not to get into "micromanagement." He also accused the FLDS of using the property without permission.
"The Movants (Willie Jessop, Dan Johnson and Merlin Jessop) shamelessly admit that their use of the property was at the discretion of FLDS priesthood leadership," Shields wrote. "Indeed, the Movants reveal that proceeds from their unauthorized use have gone directly to the FLDS Church."Meanwhile, lawyers for Wisan filed papers seeking to have Parker and the law firm he works for disqualified from the case, arguing they have represented the UEP Trust before the courts took control of it. Johnson and Merlin Jessop also were served subpoenas for upcoming depositions as they arrived at Monday's hearing.