Utah to launch its own investigation into FLDS food stamp fraud

SALT LAKE CITY -- The state of Utah will launch its own investigation into members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church and whether they violated rules on food stamps, FOX 13 has learned.

The Utah Department of Workforce Services said it would conduct a review into individual members of the polygamous church who are recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits following the federal prosecution of FLDS leaders, including Lyle Jeffs.

FBI surveillance video obtained by FOX 13 inside an FLDS Church-run store in what prosecutors allege shows the food stamp fraud scheme.

"We expect them to use those properly, but if we find out they’re not using whether it be this particular community or anybody, any citizen in Utah, we will pursue disqualification," said Dale Ownby, the director of eligibility for Utah's Department of Workforce Services.

The state will review evidence the FBI gathered in 2016, including hundreds of hours of surveillance video showing FLDS faithful using their SNAP benefits cards at church-run stores. Welfare recipients may also be questioned.

"We’ll need to look at each one of those individuals, case by case," Ownby said in a recent interview with FOX 13.

The state uses a "clear and convincing" standard to determine violations. If anyone challenges their determinations, an administrative law judge gets involved.

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

Federal prosecutors indicted 11 FLDS church members and leaders in what became the nation's food stamp fraud case. Church leaders were accused of ordering members to hand over their SNAP benefits to the Bishop's Storehouse to do with what they wished. The U.S. Attorney's Office at one point claimed taxpayers were bilked out of more than $11 million (a judge reduced that amount significantly to about $1.5 million). FLDS leader Lyle Jeffs, the brother of imprisoned polygamous leader Warren Jeffs, is currently serving a 5-year prison sentence for his role in the scheme.

The state, which administers the federal government's SNAP program, can now conduct its own review since the case has been adjudicated. But some who work with those in the FLDS Church fear the state may be persecuting rank-and-file members.

"Don’t paint every FLDS person that you see with the crimes of the bad guys," said Christine Marie Katas of Voices for Dignity, a group in Hildale that works with FLDS members on everything from jobs and education to evictions.

Katas said she feared the DWS review would harm families who legitimately need assistance and cause a reclusive community to retreat further from help.

FLDS members leave federal court after a detention review hearing on Dec. 20, 2016. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

"I work hard to try to convince them the outside world loves them and try to reduce the stigma against them," she told FOX 13 on Friday. "But every time there’s an investigation and it’s associated with the word FLDS, the entire population and you paint them all with the crimes of a few."

The FLDS claimed a religious right to consecrate all they have to their church. The judge handling the federal case allowed that to be raised as a defense, should the case go to trial. But the defendants took plea deals (a case was dismissed against one).

Esther, an FLDS woman who asked FOX 13 not to use her last name, said she did not believe rules were broken.

FBI surveillance video obtained by FOX 13 inside an FLDS Church-run store in what prosecutors allege shows the food stamp fraud scheme.

"I don’t know how they can prove it. You purchase food for your family and make a pot of soup for your family and share it with your neighbors, there’s nothing wrong with that," she said.

Ownby said the religious claim would be evaluated as they conducted the review, which could wrap up in a few months. Potential punishments would mean the head of household could see individual benefits cut off. (For example, a family of four would have the benefits reduced to three.)

He insisted the Utah Department of Workforce Services would not let children go hungry.

"You'll feel a sting, but the parents will still have the resources to feed their kids," he said.