By Peg McEntee
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Labor said on Wednesday it levied fines of nearly $2 million on a Utah polygamist sect for employing children and unpaid laborers in a 2012 pecan harvest.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) was sued in federal court by the Labor Department for violating child labor prohibitions.
The suit targeted the sect and its Paragon Contractors Corp, as well as sect leaders including Lyle Jeffs. The fines, assessed on April 20, total $1,964,450 and are being contested.
Lyle Jeffs, who runs the sect's operations, is the brother of Warren Jeffs, the sect's spiritual leader who is serving life plus 20 years in Texas on a 2011 conviction of sexual assault charges related to his marriages with underage girls.
Jeffs' polygamist sect, which experts estimate has 10,000 followers in North America, has been condemned by the mainstream Mormon Church and has been accused of promoting marriages between older men and underage girls. The Mormon church renounced polygamy in 1890.
The fines stem from a labor investigation that began in December 2012 when a CNN broadcast showed hundreds of women and children gathering nuts at the Southern Utah Pecan Ranch outside of Hurricane, Utah. The families were allowed to keep about half of the nuts.
Labor Department spokesman Jason Surbey said in an email that as a result of the investigation by the department's wage and hour division, all proceeds from the 2012 pecan harvest had been set aside for future back wages, liquidated damages or civil penalties owed by Paragon Contractors.
FLDS officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the fines.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bill Trott)