(CN) – Utah officials owe more than $5 million to the administrator of a polygamist sect’s $110 million trust, the proceeds of which have been tied up in a court battle for several years, the state Supreme Court ruled.
Residents of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah – most of whom are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – have been fighting for control of the United Effort Plan Trust since 2008. The trust owns nearly all of the property in the twin towns along the Arizona-Utah border.
Utah took over the trust in 2005 as underage rape charges swirled around the group’s leader, Warren Jeffs, who still supposedly controls church from the Texas prison where he is serving a life sentence.
A probate court tapped accountant Bruce Wisan to administer the trust on behalf of the towns’ residents, but a breakaway group calling itself the FLDS Association stopped making regular occupancy-fee payments to the trust.
When Wisan proposed selling trust properties to pay administration and legal costs, this association filed suit.
Last year, Wisan asked the state to make an interim payment of about $5.5 million, which the trust would pay back after all the legal wrangling ended. Utah’s attorney general opposed the idea, but the probate court approved the payment in February finding the state’s objections “broad-based and often vague.”
The Utah Supreme Court affirmed last week, finding no abuse of discretion “under the highly unusual circumstances surrounding the UEP Trust.”
“Justice and equity supported the probate court’s award of payment because, as the probate court noted, ‘the Utah AG has taken positions that undermine the Special Fiduciary in this (and the federal) litigation’,” Justice Christine Durham wrote for the court.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department is pursuing its own case against the sect. In a June complaint, the government alleged that local government, police and utility companies are de facto arms of the church.