Several leaders and members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and money laundering.
Federal prosecutors indicted 11 members of the polygamous sect in Utah and South Dakota, on Tuesday, accusing them of running a scheme that put money from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program into the church's coffers. Six of the 11 had been arrested and pleaded not guilty as of Wednesday afternoon, according to spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Salt Lake City.
Included in the indictment were two men — Lyle and Seth Jeffs — who are brothers of the church's imprisoned founder and leader, Warren Jeffs.
Lyle Jeffs, who pleaded not guilty in a Salt Lake City courtroom Wednesday, has been the acting leader of the FLDS since Warren Jeffs was imprisoned in 2011 for child sex abuse. Church members and Jeffs' loyalists accuse the federal government of persecuting them.
"This indictment is not about religion. This indictment is about fraud," U.S. Attorney John W. Huber said in a statement.
In the indictment, prosecutors say FLDS church members receive millions of dollars in SNAP benefits each year. The program is intended to help low-income families and individuals buy food. Jeffs and other church leaders allegedly ordered members to give their SNAP benefits to the church, which then redistributed them to the community. In some cases, prosecutors say, church leaders told members to transfer their SNAP benefits to church-owned stores without receiving food.
The money from the alleged scheme, prosecutors say, helped finance the purchase of paper products, a tractor and a truck — all of which are ineligible under SNAP rules.
The indictments are only the latest federal action against the FLDS church in recent years.
Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison in 2011 for sexually assaulting girls who were 12 and 15 at the time he consummated his FLDS "marriage" to them.
Last September, the U.S. Department of Labor sued and fined the church over child labor violations involving at least 175 children at a Southern Utah pecan farm.
Most recently, the U.S. Department of Justice accused the FLDS of discrimination against non-church members in two of the church's polygamous towns on the Utah-Arizona border.
The crackdowns have led to questions about the future of the FLDS church and its thousands of members, who consider themselves to be Mormon fundamentalists.
In an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, Wallace Jeffs, a half-brother of Warren Jeffs and an expelled church member, said that the sweeping indictments could eventually bring down the church. "This pretty much cuts the head off the snake," he said.