SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Despite some 40 hours at the negotiating table, a battle for control of a southern Utah polygamous church's land trust may be getting more contentious rather than closer to a settlement.
Parties wrangling over the United Effort Plan Trust met in person and over the phone for a progress report with a 3rd District judge. A recording of the meeting obtained by The Associated Press shows the parties divided.
On one side are Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose members donated their property in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., to form the trust in the 1940s. The trust is worth about $114 million.
On the other side is the Arizona attorney general's office and Bruce Wisan, a certified public accountant appointed by the court to manage the trust in 2005 after allegations of mismanagement by church leader Warren Jeffs.
Jeffs is now serving a prison sentence on a 2007 conviction of accomplice to rape for his role in an arranged marriage involving a then 14-year-old follower. He is awaiting trial on criminal charges in Arizona and Texas also related to underage marriages. The church has an expansive ranch near the West Texas town of Eldorado.
"We were able to hammer what were just calling a letter of intent, which I see somewhat as a framework for compromise," Shurtleff told Judge Denise Lindberg on Wednesday. "We are not there yet, but I believe both sides have come a long, long way — further than I thought would be possible."
But that's not Arizona's take.
"From our perspective, there has been no agreement reached that we would sign off on," said Bill Richards, an assistant attorney general for Arizona.
Wisan echoed Richards' dissatisfaction and said several members of his board — a court-appointed group that includes former FLDS church members — also object.
Shurtleff said failing to reach a settlement will guarantee "years and years of litigation," and suggested that Arizona and Wisan were retreating from earlier commitments or were unwilling to compromise on some issues.
"I'll flat out tell you that they had agreed on a number of things that we are trying to take care of," Shurtleff told the court. "With all due respect to Arizona … they came here to Utah and said 'we are not budging.'"
Ultimately, Lindberg will decide whether any proposed settlement is fair. A final proposal is due by June 15.
"I would like to see a full resolution," Lindberg said. "It's not sounding like that's going to happen, but maybe half a loaf is better than none."
Wednesday's discussion was light on settlement details because of confidentiality rules. It did, however, provide some insight into how certain issues might be resolved, including the creation of a neutral housing board to deal with claims by current and former FLDS on homes in the twin towns.
The proposal also includes setting aside undeveloped lots in town for former members with legitimate beneficiary claims who were either excommunicated or voluntarily left the church.
On other issues — access to parks, use of a cemetery and payment of $2.6 million in outstanding bills — the parties were "very, very close" to an agreement, Shurtleff said.
Richards said he believes the current proposal raises constitutional and trust law problems. He also questioned whether it meets standards set when the court altered the UEP to allow for only secular management of its assets.
The FLDS believe the change is at odds with a core tenet of their religion — the Holy United Order — which calls for the sharing of assets for the benefit of those who adhere to church teachings.
The sect rejected Wisan's oversight of the trust and stayed away from court hearings for about three years. They changed course last fall when it appeared land set aside for an FLDS temple might be sold. They countersued to stop the sale, triggering settlement talks.
Richards has asked the judge to lift a stay on the sale of the land so that trust debts can be paid. The judge did not rule on the issue Wednesday but did order the FLDS to pay six months of occupancy fees, totalling about $385,000.
Lindberg said half the fees are due Monday and the balance must be paid by June 15.
Sect spokesman Willie Jessop said the FLDS do not object to the fees, but thought the payments would be part of the settlement, not in addition to a settlement. He said the FLDS don't like the idea that some of the funds may be used by Wisan in pending eviction actions against church members.
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Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.