SALT LAKE CITY -- A high-ranking member of the Fundamentalist LDS Church struck a plea bargain with federal prosecutors, admitting to food stamp fraud in a deal that got him released from jail immediately.
Seth Jeffs, a brother of imprisoned polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) fraud. In exchange, he was sentenced to time served (about six months in jail), no probation, no restitution and he and his family would not be prosecuted further in the case. He will have to sit in on a training provided by the government on proper use of SNAP benefits.
"How do you plead to the charge?" U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart asked him.
"Guilty," he said.
Jeffs appeared to smile after he was sentenced and unshackled. U.S. Marshals allowed him to leave out a side door at the federal courthouse on Wednesday, avoiding TV cameras outside. Federal prosecutors have said he is a leader in the polygamous church who oversees the group's South Dakota property.
Jeffs is among 11 people facing food stamp fraud and money laundering charges, accused of ordering FLDS followers to hand over SNAP benefits to church leaders to do with as they wished. Federal prosecutors have claimed the fraud scheme bilked taxpayers out of more than $12 million over the course of five years.
Jeffs' plea bargain is similar to one given to John Wayman, who pleaded guilty to a felony charge last week and was released from jail.
"I believe the government has made a prudent decision in its disposition," Judge Stewart said as Wednesday's hearing wrapped up.
The FLDS defendants have claimed a religious right to consecrate all they have to their church, including SNAP benefits. The feds have claimed that SNAP benefits are designated for household use only. The First Amendment issues surrounding the trial might have made it difficult to secure a conviction, but Jeffs' attorney also acknowledged in court they might be unlikely to prevail.
Outside court, Jeffs' attorney, Jay Winward, said the entire case bothered him and suggested his client was prosecuted because he is related to Warren Jeffs.
"This is an investigation that's gone on for five years. I'm not certain in any other circumstance with any other people, the U.S. government wouldn't simply ask them to stop what they were doing rather than indicting them," he told FOX 13.
The plea deals offered to FLDS have angered ex-members of the Utah-based polygamous church, who have decried them as a "slap on the wrist."
"I am saddened that justice was not served for those who were the immediate victims of this crime - those who went without the benefits that they qualified for," Brenda Nicholson, an ex-FLDS member, wrote FOX 13 on Wednesday. "The federal government was the so-called 'victim' in this case, but they really lost nothing. All the benefits that were given, as far as they have claimed, were rightfully deserved, but the leaders took them (for) themselves and the people went hungry."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Lund said their case was not to redress grievances with the leaders of the FLDS Church.
"We cannot try to address every allegation or harm, whether real or perceived," Lund told FOX 13. "We have to only handle what is charged and that is SNAP fraud."
Lund said he did not believe the government would be able to recover $12 million, which is why they opted not to seek restitution.
"The people in that community -- including some of the defendants -- are among the poorest people that live in Utah," Lund said. "They have no ability to pay restitution."
As FOX 13 reported earlier this month, plea deals are in the works for other defendants. Lund said Wednesday that negotiations are ongoing. The U.S. Attorney's Office has said it is not offering a plea deal to fugitive FLDS leader Lyle Jeffs, who remains on the lam.