SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A polygamous sect leader who is among a group of people accused of carrying out a multiyear food stamp fraud scheme said Tuesday not sharing the food would prevent him and others from living their religion and being prepared for heaven.
Seth Jeffs' testimony came as he and 10 other suspects accused of fraud and money laundering tried to persuade a Utah judge they were following religious tenets of communal living, not breaking the law.
His testimony offered a rare glimpse into the mindset of the secretive group that practices religious principles rooted in the early Mormonism of the 19th century. Members of the group based in a remote community on the Utah-Arizona border don't usually talk with outsiders at the behest of their leaders.
Seth Jeffs, who runs the group's South Dakota compound and is a brother of the group's imprisoned leader, Warren Jeffs, was only the defendant to take the stand.
The Salt Lake City courtroom was packed with lawyers, defendants and onlookers. About 20 members of the sect sat in one corner, the women wearing their typical prairie dresses and updo hairstyles. Because each suspect has at least one attorney, there were about 15 lawyers before the judge, making for unique interchanges and exchanges during questioning of the witnesses.
Seth Jeffs testified that they believe everything on earth belongs to God, which is why members must donate everything they own to a community storehouse to follow the "law of consecration." The group's leaders decide how best to redistribute the goods to people who are "living the law," he said.
"Every person has the privilege to turn in everything they have in because we believe all is not ours. All belongs to Heavenly Father," said Seth Jeffs, wearing jail jumpsuit with his hands and feet in cuffs. "I believe the law of consecration is lived in heaven. I'm preparing for that now."
In a sometimes testy cross-examination of Seth Jeffs, prosecutor Robert Lund went through a long list of food stamp rules to establish Seth Jeffs understood the parameters of the program. When Lund asked him if he asked for a religious accommodation from the federal government, Seth Jeffs said he didn't know he had to do so.
Prosecutors argue that the defendants knowingly broke the law by not only donating food to a storehouse but diverting funds to front companies and to pay for a tractor, truck and other items. They say sect leaders lived lavishly while low-ranking followers suffered.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart in Salt Lake City is weighing whether food stamp rules burden the suspects' sincerely held religious beliefs. He didn't rule Tuesday.
He warned defense attorneys twice that he is struggling to understand how the suspects had a burden if they didn't personally receive food stamps. Defense attorneys say some of their client's family members, who include multiple wives and many children, receive the benefits.
One important person not in attendance was Lyle Jeffs, the highest-ranking leader ensnarled in the bust. He has been a fugitive for more than three months since he slipped out of a GPS ankle monitor and escaped home confinement in the Salt Lake City area. The FBI has a $50,000 reward for finding him.
Before Seth Jeffs took the stand, an expert on early Mormonism testified that members of the sect hold beliefs strikingly similar to Mormons in the 1800s. Mormon history expert Lyndon Watson Cook said early Mormons would have worried about their eternal salvation if they didn't follow the communal living guidelines.
"Their language is the language of the 19th century Mormon," Cook said. "That's the way they thought and talked."
Federal prosecutors, though, pointed out that Cook isn't an expert on the sect, and he acknowledged his opinion is based solely on his reading of affidavits submitted in this case.
Defense attorneys grilled prosecution witness Jeffrey Cohen of the U.S. Department of Agriculture into acknowledging that there are no precise, written regulations that prohibit sharing goods purchased with food stamps. Federal public defender Kathy Nester also pointed that the government has made food stamp accommodations for many unique groups, including an Alaskan tribe that is allowed to purchase arrows for hunting and supplies for fishing.
Cohen said he's not sure if similar accommodations could be made for the polygamous sect, but he said changes would have to go through Congress. Speaking generally, Cohen said the agency's believes the overarching rules imply that goods bought by food stamps are only for the eligible household.
The sect, known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is based on the Utah-Arizona border. They believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven — a legacy of the early Mormon church. The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the practice in 1890 and strictly prohibits it today.
The 11 defendants have pleaded not guilty to food stamp fraud and money laundering.