SALT LAKE CITY -- The polygamous border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., are in a dire economic situation, prompting many to seek welfare assistance.
Despite a repeated claim that FLDS members are instructed to "bleed the beast," data shows Hildale does not appear to be the biggest recipients of food stamps -- but families there do get the most money.
FOX 13 requested Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) data from the Utah Department of Workforce Services and Arizona Department of Economic Security, which administers the food stamp program for the federal government. The data, provided under public records requests, reveals the towns that serve as headquarters of the Fundamentalist LDS Church do not have the most cases.
The FLDS communities' use of food stamps has received new scrutiny since federal prosecutors leveled SNAP fraud and money laundering charges against 11 members of the polygamous sect, including FLDS bishops John Wayman, Lyle Jeffs, and Seth Jeffs (who are brothers to imprisoned church leader Warren Jeffs). The Utah Department of Workforce Services told FOX 13 it has been cooperating with federal investigators, handing over transaction data that was requested.
The Arizona Department of Economic Security reported 3,900 individuals in 508 households received SNAP benefits in Colorado City, for an average of $400,000 each month in 2015. In Hildale, the Utah Department of Workforce Services reported 228 households receiving $2.3 million in 2015.
The number of homes seeking food stamp benefits climbed steadily from 2011 to 2014 in both communities, but then dropped in 2015.
FOX 13 compared Hildale's food stamp data to other cities and towns in Utah and found that while the town does not have the most people using SNAP benefits, families there get the most money -- by hundreds of dollars. A five-year aggregate shows an average of 282 households receiving $924 a month in SNAP funding.
"That's because their household size is larger, but I don't think statistically we're seeing Hildale uses food stamps significantly greater than some of the other cities in Utah," said Kevin Burt, the assistant director for the eligibility services division of Utah's Department of Workforce Services.
The average household in Utah receiving SNAP benefits is 2.5 people, the data shows. In Hildale, it's 8.5 people.
Utah's Department of Workforce Services said it has found no evidence anyone lied to get on food stamps.
"It's really important to understand during this entire process -- all the individuals -- we haven't found anyone ineligible for benefits," he said.
Indeed, FBI interviews filed with court documents showed that FLDS leader Lyle Jeffs insisted that no one lie to get on government assistance, but church members were allegedly pressured to hand over food stamp purchases.
"When the storehouse was running low on items, church officials they made a blast phone call to UO (United Order) members asking them to donate certain items to the storehouse, by using their SNAP/ food stamp benefits," Allene Steed told FBI agents in an interview.
Ex-members of the church have long accused FLDS leaders of trying to "bleed the beast," referring to government and welfare fraud. It is against regulations to "hand over" food stamp benefits, Burt said, adding that it is only meant to be used by the household.
While federal prosecutors allege food stamp fraud was taking place, legally the government can't cut anyone off until there is a conviction. So it's possible the same fraud could be happening even as the court case moves forward.
"Many of these households have children that need the food stamp benefit to be able to continue to meet their nutritional needs," Burt said. "So what will happen is the household will continue to receive the benefit while the parent would be sanctioned."
Such sanctions could include cutting the head of household off or an order of restitution.