SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge has ordered a contracting company with ties to a polygamous sect to pay at least $200,000 in back wages to children who were sent to work picking pecans for long hours in the cold.
U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell handed down the sharply worded order after deciding that Paragon Contractors sent kids as young as 6 to the 2012 harvest, sometimes with little food and few bathroom breaks.
"Behind a veil of secrecy in southern Utah's desert country, the defendants profited from the labor of a religious community's children," Campbell wrote in Tuesday's order. She also ordered the company to pay the cost of being monitored by an independent overseer for five years.
Defense attorneys have said kids were glad to get a break from schoolwork to gather nuts for the needy. They called sanctions first proposed by prosecutors overreaching and unfair. Paragon lawyers didn't immediately return calls seeking comment Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Labor asked for the $200,000 to be set aside so children who didn't get paid could submit their hours and be reimbursed. Paragon worked closely with leaders of the Fundamentalist LDS Church along the Utah-Arizona border to funnel children to the harvest, attorney Karen Bobela said.
The company has deep connections to the sect led by Warren Jeffs and was under pressure to make money for its leaders when it sent kids to the fields, Bobela said.
Prosecutors also asked for the independent overseer, arguing there's one federal labor investigator in the region and he can't keep an eye on Paragon while completing his other responsibilities.
Paragon lawyers pushed back against those proposals at a September hearing, saying the company's financial situation has changed since it reported revenues of $4.5 million in 2011 and there haven't been any new allegations over the past few years.
The case is one of several aimed at reining in the group tied to abuses from underage marriage to discrimination against nonmembers. Labor lawyers also filed a case against another company linked to the FLDS Church over underage labor allegations, though that case has now been settled.
Meanwhile, an Arizona jury this spring found that the twin polygamous towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, violated the constitutional rights of nonbelievers by denying them basic services such as police protection.
Several members have also been charged in Utah with conducting a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme, though leader Lyle Jeffs escaped home confinement in that case and remains on the run.