SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff was put under oath Friday and ordered to explain why he is refusing to pay $5.6 million owed to managers appointed by a court to break up a polygamist community.
Shurtleff and the judge described the moment as extraordinary — lawyers are seldom forced to testify under oath.
The state's top lawman took the witness stand over his objections, underscoring a simmering separation-of-powers dispute. State attorneys argued that no state court can force elected officials to pay any money, but the Utah Supreme Court upheld the judgment in August.
Third District Judge Denise Lindberg could have thrown Shurtleff in jail for refusing to pay the bill by a deadline months ago. It didn't get that far Friday, but Shurtleff was "worried she may decide to put me in jail. I'm glad that didn't happen."
Shurtleff seemed visibly angry but held his composure on the witness stand. He argued that his agency doesn't have $5.6 million and that it would take months to get the money from legislators, who aren't certain they want to pay.
"Everyone associated with this has egg on their face," said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, who sits on the Legislature's budgeting-writing committee. "The big question is how much if any of the money will be appropriated by the Legislature. I have no idea."
The $5.6 million is owed to Salt Lake City accountant Bruce Wisan, his attorneys and other firms hired to liquidate assets of a communal land trust once run by Warren Jeffs, jailed leader of the Fundamentalist LDS Church.
A string of lawsuits have frozen the assets, however, leaving no money to pay the professionals. That's why Lindberg ordered the state to pay the bill and recover its money later.
Shurtleff said he doesn't want to pay any bills until a federal appeals court rules on a challenge to the takeover of the FLDS trust.
Utah says it would have no way to recover the money if the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals rules the takeover was unconstitutional. A ruling from the Denver-based appeals court isn't expected for months.
Lindberg issued no orders Friday. Instead, she urged Shurtleff to "take every step to use your best efforts" to persuade Utah legislators to free up some cash.
Shurtleff pledged to redouble his efforts but said the money probably wouldn't come until the budget year rolls around next July.
Lindberg also indicated she will order the attorneys general of Utah and Arizona to take over some of the duties of lawyers working for the court-appointed takeover team who are threatening to quit for lack of payment.
In the move backed by Arizona, Utah seized control of the FLDS trust in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement by Jeffs and other church leaders. The charitable trust holds the land and homes of members in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., and in Bountiful, British Columbia.
"There's plenty of money there, valuable property, well over $100 million," said Shurtleff, adding that buyers are lining up for a major farm on the Utah-Arizona border.
Shurtleff said he tried to negotiate a settlement in 2008 that was rejected by the court-appointed fiduciary and obstructed by members of the faith who alleged they were getting shortchanged.
A liquidation would involve selling homes and businesses held by the trust to individual residents of the towns. Under Shurtleff's plan, terms of sales and ownership disputes would be resolved by an advisory board. That became a sticking point for the faith's adherents, who fear the board will be stacked against them, he said.
Because the FLDS is a major shareowner of the trust, it has to agree to any settlement, but it isn't clear which members are representing the church, Shurtleff said.
Jeffs may be behind the obstruction effort, he said, with members arguing over things like who gets to be buried at a local cemetery.
"We never dreamed we'd be here seven years and $5.6 million later," Shurtleff said Friday in a court hallway. "For crying out loud, we need to resolve this."