SALT LAKE CITY -- Fundamentalist LDS Church bishop Lyle Jeffs asked a federal judge to release him from jail as he faces food stamp fraud and money laundering charges.
After several hours of arguments on Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart said he would make a decision -- but did not issue a timeline for when he would rule.
Lyle Jeffs and 10 other FLDS members are facing federal charges of food stamp fraud and money laundering.
They're accused of bilking taxpayers out of more than $12 million by ordering FLDS members to hand over their food stamp cards to leaders to do with as they wished.
In court Wednesday, defense attorneys countered with a religious freedom argument -- that the FLDS Church believes in "consecrating" things to their united order.
In the hearing, federal prosecutors pushed to keep Jeffs in jail by arguing that he still exercises great influence over the FLDS community and could interfere with witnesses or flee. They claim he carries out the orders of his brother, polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, who still runs things from his Texas prison cell where he's serving a life sentence related to underage "marriages."
Defense attorneys countered that Lyle Jeffs has no criminal record and has appeared in court when asked. They accused the government of presenting "stale" evidence nearly a decade old, attempting to tie the FLDS bishop to the crimes of his brother.
As arguments were made, Lyle Jeffs sat quietly in the courtroom, shackled and wearing a blue jail jumpsuit. Behind him, rows of the courtroom were filled with followers -- including some of his wives.
Prosecutors introduced dictations from Warren Jeffs signed by Lyle Jeffs that had been mailed out, that they claimed "advocated overthrowing the laws of the nation when they conflict with tenets of the FLDS Church." Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Lund said Warren Jeffs is visited in prison by followers, who surreptitiously record his "revelations," which are then transcribed and disseminated.
Defense attorneys pointed out that Lyle Jeffs has only visited his brother in prison three times now.
Since Lyle Jeffs has been jailed, federal prosecutors claimed people within the FLDS community have come to offer information about food stamp fraud.
"The vast majority of witnesses, who are unindicted co-conspirators, who live in that community have come forward," Lund said. "This is a willingness for cooperation."
As prosecutors brought up some evidence, defense attorney Kathy Nester said members of the FLDS faith and Lyle Jeffs would object to what they heard because it speaks to their core beliefs. She asked that they be allowed to leave, and Judge Stewart allowed it.
When prosecutors began to bring up dictations from Warren Jeffs talking about underage "marriages" within the polygamous church, FLDS members in the courtroom all stood up and walked out. Lyle Jeffs was escorted to a holding cell by U.S. Marshals as prosecutors discussed child-bride marriages within the church. In one, they pointed to Lyle calling Warren Jeffs and asking when he should begin having children with a 16-year-old bride. Warren Jeffs reportedly told him not to wait.
"The government has no proof of anything between Lyle Jeffs and this girl," Nester responded. "They would have charged that as a crime and that hasn't happened."
Prosecutors submitted to the judge a list of Lyle Jeffs' wives, including three who were believed to have married him as minors. They claim the information came from FLDS records seized by authorities in Texas.
"Lyle Jeffs carries out the dictates of his prophet and full-blood brother, Warren Jeffs -- including marrying minors," Lund told Judge Stewart. "This defendant lives in open defiance of the law."
Prosecutors also claimed Lyle Jeffs has dodged subpoena service in a child labor case involving hundreds of FLDS children pulled from school and put to work on a southern Utah farm. They accused him of switching cars, traveling constantly and hiding behind locked compound gates to avoid process papers.
Nester pushed back, pointing out that other FLDS defendants in past criminal actions have never fled, nor has Warren Jeffs told them to flee. She accused the government of targeting her client because of his unique beliefs and said similarly situated defendants in white collar cases are not jailed.
But Judge Stewart pointed out Lyle Jeffs' position as bishop of the FLDS Church -- and asked if he should ignore that.
"Are you telling me I cannot draw a conclusion your client had overall responsibility for the alleged conduct, despite his position as bishop in the United Order?" he asked.
"I've never seen anything like what the government is doing in attacking the history and characteristics of my client," Nester said.
Nester said the government has shown nothing that suggests Lyle Jeffs would interfere with witnesses, or flee. She said that if he were to be released, Lyle Jeffs would live in a home in Provo and wear a GPS monitoring device. Judge Stewart previously has released FLDS leaders John Wayman, Nephi Allred and Seth Jeffs from jail pending trial.
"This all comes down to one issue -- that's Warren Jeffs," Nester said.
UPDATE: Fundamentalist LDS Church bishop Lyle Jeffs is ordered to remain in jail while he awaits trial.
According to court documents, the judge said he is concerned Jeffs would intimidate witnesses or flee.