Federal prosecutors have announced charges against leaders and members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.
Eleven leaders and members of the controversial Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) - including two of the brothers of church leader Warren Jeffs - were indicted Tuesday on charges of conspiracy to commit millions of dollars in food stamp fraud and money laundering.
In the indictment released Tuesday, federal prosecutors allege that church leaders diverted Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly known as food stamps, from beneficiaries to a communal storehouse to use the funds and goods for church purposes. The allegedly stolen benefits amounted to millions of dollars per year.
The enclave of the FLDS church, which is situated in adjacent and remote Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, has previously run into trouble with the law. In an ongoing case, the church is accused of discriminating against local residents who are not members of the church by denying them municipal services. The church has denied these allegations.
Recently, the church also faced a child labor lawsuit, and in 2011 Jeffs, its prophet and leader, was convicted and is now in prison for child sex abuse. Investigators and former church members have said that Jeffs still largely runs the sect from behind bars.
Among the defendants prosecutors named Tuesday is Lyle Jeffs, brother of Warren, who prosecutors said has been running church operations in his brother's absence.
"The indictment is not about religion. The indictment is about fraud," U.S. Attorney John Huber said in a statement. "This indictment charges a sophisticated group of individuals operating in the Hildale-Colorado City community who conspired to defraud a program intended to help low-income individuals and families purchase food."
Eric Barnhart, special agent in charge of the FBI's Salt Lake City Field Office, said in the statement, "This type of conduct represents nothing less than pure theft."
Wallace Jeffs, Warren Jeffs's half-brother, who is no longer affiliated with the church, told The Salt Lake Tribune that he expects the indictments will lead to the church's downfall. "If they're finally going to prosecute Lyle and the leaders of the church, it will eventually bring the church down," he said. "This pretty much cuts the head off the snake."
"The church is basically just a money-laundering criminal organization," he added. "The fact that they're actually targeting them financially…is going to bring the church to its knees."
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has said the church is a "white supremacist, homophobic, anti-government, totalitarian cult," according to The Washington Post. The church has apparently taught that homosexuality and nonwhite races are evil.
The SPLC says the church was formed in 1890, breaking off from the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints after that church, which is Mormon, renounced polygamy. Its leaders apparently outlaw such activities as swimming and watching television, and leaders assign marriages. FLDS membership is estimated to be 10,000.
"The FLDS has grown fat on the property of its members, many of whom sign over their wealth to their leader," the SPLC says.
According to Tuesday's indictment, since around 2011 church members have vowed to donate all material assets to the storehouse of the church, which then distributes commodities to the church community as part of an allegiance that the church calls the United Order.
Citing officials, the Tribune said that in 2015, 728 households in Colorado City and Hildale received food stamps, for a benefit amount of $7.2 million.
Members of the church who are SNAP beneficiaries allegedly used their funds at church-controlled businesses. The church allegedly instructed members to bring items purchased in that manner directly to the communal storehouse, or to swipe their benefits cards at those stores without getting food items in return. The stores allegedly transferred the funds to companies serving as fronts for the storehouse.
Defendants allegedly used the SNAP funds to purchase items including paper products, a John Deere tractor and a Ford F-350 truck.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP benefits through its Food and Nutrition Service, the rate of SNAP fraud declined significantly from the early 1990s through 2008, the year for which the most recent data is available. The agency has said it has more than 100 analysts and investigators around the country looking out for fraud. It conducted 4,500 undercover investigations in 2012, resulting in 342 convictions.
It is illegal for SNAP beneficiaries to use benefits for nonfood items, and only authorized beneficiaries can use the benefits.
The 11 defendants each face one count of conspiracy to commit SNAP benefits fraud, which carries a potential penalty of five years in prison, and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, which could bring 20 years in prison. Prosecutors are also seeking the amount of the money involved in the traceable crimes.
As of Tuesday, law enforcement had arrested at least five of the defendants, including Lyle Jeffs, who was expected to appear in court Wednesday. A federal court clerk in Salt Lake City told Newsweek Wednesday morning that none of the defendants had yet been assigned lawyers.