DENVER — A Utah contractor with ties to a polygamous group is set to appear in court Monday to challenge a judge's finding that it put nearly 200 children to work picking pecans for long hours in the cold without pay.
Lawyers for Paragon Contractors say the kids were volunteering with their families to pick up fallen nuts for the needy, and children looked forward to the break from home schooling. They are appearing before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
Paragon is challenging a ruling from U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell, who found the company forced kids as young as 6 to work in the cold during a 2012 pecan harvest in southern Utah, sometimes with little food and few bathroom breaks.
Campbell ordered Paragon to pay $200,000 in back wages and submit to independent oversight. The company called the sanctions overreaching and unfair.
U.S. Department of Labor attorneys also say in court documents that the company changed its name and put children to work again on construction jobs in 2015 and 2016.
Prosecutors contend the company has deep ties to the polygamous sect led by Warren Jeffs and was under pressure to make money for its leaders when it used 1,400 unpaid workers, including 175 children.
Paragon worked closely with leaders of the secretive Fundamentalist LDS Church along the Utah-Arizona border to funnel children to the harvest, U.S. Department of Labor attorney Karen Bobela has said.
Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted of sexually assaulting girls he considered brides. Group leaders don't have a spokesman or contact where they can be reached.1 comment on this story
The case was one of several aimed at reining in the group tied to abuses ranging from underage marriage to discrimination against those who aren't members of the FLDS Church. Labor lawyers also settled an underage labor case against another company linked to the group.
An Arizona jury, meanwhile, found that the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, violated the constitutional rights of nonbelievers by denying them basic services such as police protection.
Federal prosecutors in Utah also reached plea deals with several members accused in a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme.