Judge won’t block polygamist leader from claiming food stamp benefits a donation to church

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge has refused to grant a request by the government that would have essentially limited the defense of polygamist leader Lyle Jeffs in his upcoming food stamp fraud trial.

In a ruling issued Wednesday afternoon, U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart said he would allow a jury instruction on the permissible use of Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits — just not the one the government wanted.

“Specifically, the government urges the Court to instruct the jury ‘that SNAP benefits must be used only by the authorized household to purchase eligible food for that household and that any other use of SNAP benefits, including the donation of benefits, is not authorized,'” Judge Stewart wrote.

A booking mug shot of Lyle Jeffs. (Image via Tooele County Sheriff’s Office)

The judge ruled donating funds for SNAP benefits is prohibited, and can only be used by the eligible household to buy food.

“However, there is no statute or regulation that would prohibit the donation of food items obtained through the use of SNAP benefits,” he wrote.

Jeffs, once a bishop in the Utah-based Fundamentalist LDS Church, is the last of 11 defendants charged in the nation’s largest food stamp fraud scheme. They’re accused of ordering faithful members of the FLDS Church to hand over SNAP benefits to leaders to do with as they wished. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Utah has alleged the scheme exceeded $12 million in taxpayer dollars.

The other defendants have either struck plea deals or had charges dismissed. Jeffs vanished a year ago after the FBI said he slipped out of a GPS monitoring device and escaped home confinement. He was arrested in June in South Dakota.

The FLDS have claimed a “religious right” to donate their property to the church.

Judge Stewart said he worried about the wider applications of what the government wanted.

“While the government’s instruction appears to be based on wholesale donation of
benefits, under the government’s interpretation a SNAP recipient could face criminal prosecution if they donated cookies to a school bake sale that were made from food obtained through the use of SNAP benefits. Similarly, a SNAP beneficiary could face federal charges if they donated excess food to their local food bank,” he wrote. “The Court refuses to construe the statutes or regulations so broadly as to sweep in this type of innocent conduct.”

Jeffs will go on trial on food stamp fraud and fugitive-related charges in October.

Read the judge’s ruling here: