SALT LAKE CITY – The state of Utah has dropped its investigation into food stamp fraud involving members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church.
Utah's Department of Workforce Services confirmed to FOX 13 it had ended the investigation, deciding to not pursue any action against rank-and-file members of the polygamous church who may have been caught up in what became the nation's biggest welfare abuse case.
"As we’ve gotten that evidence back from our federal partners, there is not enough evidence to pursue any individuals," said Nate McDonald, assistant deputy director of DWS. "So at this point, there’s no further action we’re taking any action against any individuals."
Federal authorities raided businesses and homes in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., in 2016, leveling charges against 11 people. Some did jail time. Lyle Jeffs, the brother of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, is currently serving a five-year federal prison sentence for his role in the multi-million dollar scheme. Defense attorneys argued a religious right for the FLDS to give what they had to their faith.
The FBI handed over some of its evidence to the state of Utah. Some, including hours of surveillance video, showed FLDS members using their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits at local stores. Prosecutors alleged they were then ordered to hand over what they got to the Bishop's Storehouse, run by the FLDS Church. Ex-members alleged women and children lived on scraps while leaders got "shrimp and lobster."
But in reviewing that evidence, McDonald said DWS investigators determined that those church members who received SNAP benefits were, in fact, eligible. At the time the investigation was launched, DWS said there was no evidence anyone lied to get SNAP benefits (and FBI interviews also showed that FLDS leader Lyle Jeffs insisted that no one lie to get on government assistance).
So the state concluded it wasn't worth it to keep going.
"It comes back to: was there any clear and convincing evidence that they intentionally were committing fraud against the department? At this point there’s nothing that is that clear and convincing. It wouldn’t be a productive or efficient use of taxpayer dollars for us to pursue it any further," he told FOX 13.
Alina Darger, a plural wife who runs the nonprofit group Cherish Families, which works with people in Hildale and neighboring Colorado City, said the end of the state investigation is welcome news.
"Everybody’s a little bit relieved to hear that," she said in an interview Wednesday with FOX 13.
Darger said it was part of the FLDS belief system for members to give what they have to their church, but acknowledged it created problems.
"There were children not getting the food they needed and it was part of their faith and belief to put it all into the system and have it returned to them," she said. "But a lot of things were not being returned and they were going hungry."
In part because of the prosecutions leveled by the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah and because many have left the FLDS Church, Darger said a lot has changed since prosecutions began in 2016. As punishment, some who were charged were required to take a federal class on "the proper use of SNAP benefits." The state also cut off some stores from being able to take food stamp benefit cards.
Food insecurity remains a problem in Hildale and Colorado City. Darger said it's one of the top issues that Cherish Families seeks donations for.
DWS said that as of December 2018, there are 119 households receiving SNAP benefits. That's down from 228 households in 2016, when FOX 13 conducted an analysis of food stamp benefits in Hildale and the rest of the state.
Darger said it was good for the state to not go after individual women and children within the FLDS faith who would have suffered. The state would not penalize children but would have cut benefits to their parents.
"When they turned their food stamps over, it was part of what they were required to do," Darger said. "To penalize them now would be a setback in healing and moving forward with their lives."