SALT LAKE CITY — An attorney for the FLDS Church is blasting Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff over a letter that gives the sect 30 days to settle an ongoing dispute over a multimillion-dollar trust or face consequences.
"It's politics, and I'm here to say I don't want him to get away with that," said attorney Rod Parker, who added the letter "comes right out of left field."
"(Shurtleff) knows that's not an honest letter," Parker said, "and he needs to step up and take responsibility for what's going on."
Shurtleff and leaders of the Fundamentalist LDS Church have been in ongoing negotiations for the past six months, seeking to settle a nearly 5-year-old dispute over the United Effort Plan Trust.
The $100 million-plus trust holds most of the homes and property in Hildale, Utah; Colorado City, Ariz.; and Bountiful, British Columbia, Canada — communities long dominated by members of the FLDS Church. It was seized by Utah's courts in 2005 after state attorneys alleged that FLDS leader Warren Jeffs — then a fugitive from Arizona criminal charges — had used trust assets for personal benefit and left it vulnerable to liquidation from default judgments in civil lawsuits filed in 2004.
In a Jan. 26 letter to three FLDS attorneys, Shurtleff said he expected their clients to accept a settlement proposed by Bruce Wisan, the court-appointed special fiduciary of the trust. He set a Feb. 26 deadline for such a settlement.
"If your clients are not willing to accept this offer, I will assume that they have no intention, or at least do not have the ability, to resolve this matter by settlement and that future settlement negotiations would be futile," Shurtleff wrote.
He added that failure to reach a settlement by Feb. 26 would indicate that he should "support the rule of law" and join Wisan and the Arizona Attorney General's Office in their efforts to carry out previous court orders regarding the trust.
"It is not politics," assistant Utah attorney general Jerrold Jensen said Wednesday. "What's prompted this is their refusal to make any movement toward settlement. All they want to do is file motion after motion with the courts."
Jensen said one of Shurtleff's main concerns is the money that is being spent on attorneys' fees. Those fees, he said, are being paid for by the same people — FLDS members are issued assessments that pay for their own attorneys, and they also face the sale of UEP Trust land to pay for Wisan's attorneys.
"We think it's an abhorrent situation, and we'd like to see it settled," Jensen said. "It's gone on long enough. … Frankly our suspicion is they really don't want to settle."
Parker said part of Wisan's plan calls for land in FLDS communities to be subdivided, with the newly created lots deeded to individual community members. Such a move would be counter to the basic tenets of the FLDS faith, which espouses the communal property nature of the United Effort Plan.
"He knows Wisan's proposal is unacceptable to FLDS," Parker said, adding that Shurtleff also knows settlement of the trust based on the proposal is "impossible."
"They raise that objection every time," Jensen said.
Shurtleff's office has offered a compromise to the Wisan plan, Jensen said, that would subdivide trust property and provide deeds only to those residents who want a deed.
"We've been walking a middle ground, trying to take the FLDS position," Jensen said. "But we've become increasingly frustrated with their refusal to settle, and the (ultimatum) is we're going to stop walking the middle ground if they don't settle.
"We think the trust ought to be dissolved," he said. "We can't continue to have a special fiduciary running an 8,500-person community. That's not how cities operate in this country."
In his letter, Shurtleff also broached the possibility that his office may seek to have Hildale disincorporated because of "serious issues" with the municipal government. Jensen said such a move is not necessarily tied to settlement of the trust issue but is based on a desire to guarantee the civil rights of the non-FLDS residents of Hildale.
"We would hope we could settle (the trust) and solve the control the church has over the city all in the same movement, but we're not convinced it would happen," Jensen said.
But Parker called any effort by Shurtleff to have Hildale disincorporated "undemocratic."
"The people of Hildale have voted leaders into office, and the people who occupy those offices represent the views of people who elected them and won't go along with Wisan's plan," Parker said.
"Rather than go along with that democratic statement, what Mark wants to do, what he's suggesting in this letter," Parker continued, "is that he would go in and do away with the elected officials so he can do things a different way."
Attorneys for the FLDS Church and Wisan are preparing for a Feb. 17 appearance before the Utah Supreme Court where justices will hear oral argument on the sect's request to convert the trust back into a religious entity. The court is also expected to decide that day whether Parker, who represented the UEP when it was under FLDS control, should be disqualified from continuing to represent the sect in future litigation.
e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org TWITTER: GeoffLiesik