Dec 28, 2016

Polygamous sect member takes plea deal in food stamp fraud case

Nigel Duara
Los Angeles Times
December 28, 2016

The brother of polygamist leader Warren Jeffs has avoided incarceration by pleading guilty in a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud case. Had he pleaded not guilty, he could have faced 20 years in prison if convicted.

Seth Steed Jeffs, 43, signed his name to a federal plea deal on Wednesday morning. Before his arrest in February, Jeffs was at the center of an alleged plot to collect government Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollars from sect members and redistribute them to sect leadership.

"Between Sept. 1, 2011, and Dec. 28, 2016, I knowingly diverted Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to non-beneficiaries," Jeffs wrote in the plea deal.

Seth Jeffs was arrested along with 10 other members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the polygamist sect that the FBI believes is still run by Warren Jeffs from his prison cell in Texas.

Seth Jeffs' deal Wednesday spares him prison time or a fine, and the government dropped conspiracy and money laundering charges.

Jay Winward, Seth Jeffs' attorney, told KSTU-TV in Salt Lake City that the charges were unnecessary. "This is an investigation that's gone on for five years. I'm not certain in any other circumstance with any other people, the U.S. government wouldn't simply ask them to stop what they were doing rather than indicting them," he told the TV station.

U.S. prosecutors said they're satisfied with the six months that Jeffs has served in jail since he was arrested in February following a multiyear federal investigation.

Seth and Warren's brother Lyle Jeffs was also named in the food stamp fraud indictment, but slipped off his ankle monitor after his arrest and fled. He remains unaccounted for, and the FBI in Salt Lake City has offered $50,000 for information leading to his capture.

Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, form the FLDS community of Short Creek. The FLDS church is not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the formal name of the Mormon Church, which banned polygamy in 1890 – though plural marriages remained a custom through the 1930s, when Mormons began to excommunicate those who took multiple wives.

Prosecutors have alleged in court filings that Seth Jeffs operates the group's South Dakota holdings.

Prosecutors allege that church leadership ordered FLDS followers to make purchases with their food stamp cards, then turn over the goods to the church.

In another segment of the alleged scheme, food stamps were cashed at FLDS-owned businesses, but no goods changed hands and the money was handed over to church-owned companies or used to pay for capital expenses, such as vehicles.

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