clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

James Huntsman files lawsuit seeking return of tithing; church calls fraud claims ‘baseless’

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City will host a special broadcast on missionary work next month.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Church Administration Building is pictured in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. A church spokesman responded Tuesday to a lawsuit filed by James Huntsman seeking a return of tithing money.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

James Huntsman, son of the late billionaire Jon Huntsman Sr. and brother of former Utah governor and U.S. presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr., filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday seeking to have The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints return more than $5 million in tithing he gave the church over a quarter of a century.

Huntsman, 50, who runs a California film distribution company, stopped paying tithing in 2017, according to the suit, and began to seek the return of previous donations after a 2019 report that a former employee for the church’s investment arm had filed an IRS complaint alleging the church should be forced to pay taxes on returns made from invested tithing funds.

No other Huntsman family members are involved in the complaint, James Huntsman’s attorney told The Washington Post, which first reported the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in central California.

The suit alleges the church defrauded church members by using tithing funds for purposes other than charity. Huntsman’s suit repeated others’ allegations that the church used $1.4 billion in tithing funds to help pay for City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City.

“Through this action,” the lawsuit said, “Mr. Huntsman seeks to recover his tithing funds that were fraudulently obtained by the LDS Corporation. He will then use the recovered funds to benefit organizations and communities whose members have been marginalized by the church’s teachings and doctrines, including by donating to charities supporting LGBTQ, African-American, and women’s rights. Unlike the LDS Corporation, Mr. Huntsman is confident that these charities will actually use his donations for their intended purposes.”

Church spokesman Eric Hawkins called Huntsman’s claims “baseless.”

“Mr. James Huntsman resigned his church membership last year,” Hawkins said in a statement provided to the Deseret News. “Now, he is demanding through his lawyers that tithing he paid to the church as charitable contributions be returned to him. He claims that, contrary to assurances made by past church President Gordon B. Hinckley, the church used tithing to build City Creek, a mixed-use commercial development across the street from church headquarters in Salt Lake City.

“In fact, tithing was not used on the City Creek project. As President Hinckley said in the April 2003 general conference of the church, the funds came from ‘commercial entities owned by the church’ and the ‘earnings of invested reserve funds.’ A similar statement was made by President Hinckley in the October 2004 general conference. Mr. James Huntsman’s claim is baseless.”

The suit also repeated a claim by the former church investment employee that the church used $594 million in tithing funds to bolster Beneficial Financial Group during the 2008 financial crisis. Beneficial is a life insurance company owned by the church’s for-profit arm, Deseret Management Corp., which also owns the Deseret News.

Deseret Management leaders reported earlier that DMC provided those funds to Beneficial to strengthen its balance sheet and made full disclosure to the Utah Department of Insurance.

Church leaders have maintained that tithing funds are used for religious purposes.

“Tithing funds are voluntary contributions by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an expression of their faith in God,” Hawkins, the church spokesman, said in his statement. “They are used for a broad array of religious purposes, including missionary work, education, humanitarian causes and the construction of meetinghouses, temples and other buildings important to the work of the church, as reflected in scripture and determined by church leaders.”

The church of more than 16.5 million members maintains reserve funds that could cover in economic downturns the operations of what soon will be more than 200 temples, global missionary work, more than 30,000 congregations, and five colleges and universities.

Jon Huntsman Sr., who served as an Area Seventy for the church for 15 years and also as a mission president, died in 2018.

In 2019, David A. Nielsen resigned from employment at the church’s investment firm after his wife and children left the church. He sent a letter to the IRS claiming the church does not meet IRS regulations. Some experts said the letter would not prompt an investigation.

Hawkins said no when asked by The Washington Post if the church is in talks with the IRS.

Clarification: In a previous version, the church spokesman’s response to a Washington Post reporter about talks with the IRS was mischaracterized.