October 9, 2008

Law Firm Booted From FLDS Church’s Trust Case

By Ben Winslow Deseret News

In a ruling that could have widespread impact on the ongoing legal war involving the Fundamentalist LDS Church, the judge overseeing the polygamous sect's real-estate arm has ousted the law firm that used to represent it.

Rod Parker and the Salt Lake law firm Snow Christensen & Martineau were disqualified Wednesday from representing the FLDS Church and some of its members in a challenge to the reforms of the United Effort Plan Trust.

"This is an irreconcilable conflict, and it mandates the disqualification of Mr. Parker and the law firm," 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg said. "It extends to the consultation of present

and future litigants."

The judge also ordered the firm to hand over documents gathered from 17 years of representing the UEP and the FLDS Church to lawyers for the court-appointed special fiduciary placed in charge of the $110 million trust.

"The court's asking us to hand over the confidences of our client to an adversary in the view of our clients," Parker said outside court. "I think we have an ethical obligation to resist that."

FLDS member and spokesman Willie Jessop stood up in court to protest the judge's decision to disqualify their attorneys.

"Looks to me like it's part of the psychological and sociological warfare that she's plenty willing to take part of," Jessop told the Deseret News as he left the courthouse.

Church lawyers argued that the trust has been changed so dramatically, it is not the same entity it once was. Attorneys for the fiduciary countered that Snow Christensen & Martineau was once hired to defend some of the same claims they're bringing now.

"It's a huge deal to have your former counsel suing you," said Jeffrey L. Shields, an attorney for fiduciary Bruce Wisan.

Parker said he was unsure how the decision would affect at least a half-dozen lawsuits and motions challenging the UEP trust, which is now under court control. The judge's decision will be appealed to the Utah Supreme Court, lawyers for the firm said.

The trust was taken over by the courts in 2005 amid allegations that Warren Jeffs and other FLDS leaders mismanaged it. The trustees were ousted, Wisan was placed in charge, and court-ordered reforms are being enacted that would subdivide property and do away with the communal concept that the trust was founded on.

For years, FLDS members who live on land controlled by the trust remained silent and refused to cooperate with reform efforts. Now, members are challenging some of the reforms.

On Wednesday, they sought to block the sale of a 773-acre farm on the Utah-Arizona border. Wisan wants to sell the Berry Knoll Farm to a home developer, giving the debt-plagued trust a quick infusion of cash. Jim Bradshaw, an attorney representing several FLDS members, revealed the farm was designated as a temple site.

"It's a war he intends to fund by going after the heart of their community," he said.

The fiduciary didn't start the war, Shields countered, accusing FLDS leadership of sabotaging reform efforts by resisting paying taxes, refusing to sign occupancy agreements and threatening anyone interested in buying property in the communities.

Lindberg wanted to know why the FLDS wouldn't participate in court proceedings for years, despite her repeated pleas. It was a question lawyers for the FLDS could not exactly answer.

"This is a little bit too little, too late," she said.

Lindberg said she still had confidence in Wisan but set a Nov. 14 hearing in St. George on the sale of the farmland to hear input from community members. Jessop stood and suggested she should book something bigger than the courthouse.

"I don't think a building's large enough to house the thousands of people it will impact," he said.

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