SALT LAKE CITY — Seth Steed Jeffs, brother of imprisoned polygamous prophet Warren Jeffs, became the second Fundamentalist LDS Church leader to admit to food stamp fraud charges Wednesday.
Seth Jeffs, 43, pleaded guilty Wednesday to a single felony count of diverting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits.
Though the charge carried a potential penalty of up to 20 years in prison, Jeffs was released following the hearing, given credit for the at least six months he has served in jail since his arrest in February.
John Clifton Wayman, 57, accepted an identical plea deal last week and was released from jail.
Jeffs and Wayman were among the 11 FLDS Church members charged with conspiracy to commit SNAP benefits fraud and money laundering. The indictment was the result of a multiyear investigation into the polygamous border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.
Alleging $191,000 in fraud, the indictment claimed that FLDS Church members' food stamp benefits through the SNAP program were diverted from authorized beneficiaries to leaders of the church to use as they saw fit, or that church members were instructed to swipe their SNAP cards as if making purchases in church-owned businesses but left empty-handed.
In their plea agreements, Jeffs and Wayman admitted to fraudulently diverting food stamp benefits valued at $5,000 or more. Restitution was not ordered.
Jeffs did not make a statement when given an opportunity by U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart, but he responded quietly and politely to questions from the judge.
At the close of the hearing, Stewart commended Jeffs for the agreement with prosecutors that secured his release. He noted earlier in the proceeding that the two plea deals are the first he has seen struck in his courtroom in five years.
"I congratulate you and Mr. Wayman for your successful negotiation of a plea agreement," the judge said.
Jeffs responded, "Thank you, sir."
Jay Winward, Jeffs' attorney, said following the hearing that his client was ready to return to Short Creek to care for his family.
"He's glad to be going home," Winward said.
While he was pleased with the deal that secured Jeffs' release, Winward criticized the fact that charges were ever filed against him, speculating whether the investigation and resulting charges targeted the defendants because of their faith.
"It's a case that's going to bother me for the rest of my career. It's a difficult case, and one that I'll think about until the day I die," Winward said. "I'm not sure that, if it were any other individual rather than Seth Jeffs, (the government) wouldn't just ask that person to stop donating their food to their church."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Lund implied in court that, while the deal may draw criticism from opponents of the polygamous faith, the case was never meant to address every wrong, real or perceived, that the church and its leaders are accused of.
Following the hearing, Lund stood by the decision not to order restitution as part of the deal.
"Most of that money went to buy food for hungry people, which is the purpose of the SNAP funds in the first place," Lund said. "The people in that community, including the defendants, are among some of the poorest people that live in Utah. They have no ability to pay restitution, so what good does it do to have that order on a piece of paper when it can never be effectuated?"
Jeffs and Wayman were also ordered to attend a Department of Agriculture training class on the proper use of SNAP benefits that will be put on for the FLDS community.
Lund confirmed that resolutions are also being discussed with other defendants in the case, with the exception of FLDS Bishop Lyle Jeffs, who has been a fugitive since he slipped free of an ankle monitor in June and absconded.