SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal judge began hearing evidence Monday in a child labor case involving a Utah polygamous sect, including testimony from a former member who says she would have been kicked out of the faith if she didn't work on a pecan harvest.
Alyssa Bistline said she started work on the pecan ranch at age 13 at the direction of polygamous leaders. She said she was expected to work harvests on and off until she left the sect in 2013.
"I well understood that if I didn't go, I was in big trouble," said Bistline, 21. "They said, 'If you rebel or disobey, you will lose your family or you will removed.'"
Federal labor investigators say Paragon Contractors used 1,400 unpaid laborers, including 175 children, from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints during a 2012 harvest captured by news cameras about 300 miles south of Salt Lake City. The Hurricane-based company is closely affiliated with the FLDS church, prosecutors say.
Paragon denies wrongdoing, saying women and children from the sect led by the imprisoned Warren Jeffs were volunteering to collect fallen nuts, not working as employees.
"We're not here to try the church. That's another case for another day," company lawyer Rick Sutherland said.
The harvest manager, not company leaders, made the arrangement, and families were allowed to keep half of what they gathered, Paragon attorneys say.
The U.S. Labor Department is asking a judge to hold Paragon in contempt of court for violating a 2007 order against using child labor and wants the company to pay back wages. U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell is set to hear three days of testimony.
Farm work is generally exempt from child labor laws in Utah as long as it's done outside school hours. Paragon says the 2012 pecan harvest can't be considered a school day because children in the sect are homeschooled and minors were with their parents.
Federal attorneys disagree. They say it doesn't matter whether the children were taught at home; they still shouldn't have been working during public school hours.
The government says children as young as 6 worked for long hours, got sick from crawling over the damp ground and were sent to work even if they were allergic to nuts.
Paragon and several members of the polygamous group already have been fined a total of $1.9 million after a labor investigation found sect leaders directed the harvest.
Authorities say those leaders are loyal to Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted in 2011 of sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides.
The sect, a radical offshoot of Mormonism, does not have a spokesman or a phone listing where leaders can be contacted.
Two of Jeffs' brothers declined to discuss church business when they were called to testify in the child labor case in January 2015. A lawyer for Nephi and Lyle Jeffs said then that the government was trying to go beyond the pecan farm and into other FLDS activities in a way that bordered on harassment.
The hearing comes as federal prosecutors are suing members of the sect in a separate case in Phoenix. They contend two towns on the Arizona-Utah line that are dominated by the FLDS church have discriminated against nonmembers and are serving as an enforcement arm of the sect.
The towns deny the allegations and say religion isn't a motivating factor in their decisions.
Sect members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. It is a legacy of the early teachings of the Mormon church, but the mainstream faith abandoned the practice more than century ago.