SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – A high-ranking polygamous leader was released from jail Wednesday after pleading guilty in a multimillion-dollar food-stamp fraud case, becoming the second of 11 defendants to accept a plea deal in the crackdown on the sect based along the Utah-Arizona border.
Federal prosecutors said deals could be coming with other defendants implicated in the scheme in which at least $12 million in food stamps was misused – some diverted to front companies to buy tractors, trucks and other items.
Seth Jeffs, 43, pleaded guilty to felony fraud after prosecutors agreed to accept the six months he has already served in jail as his punishment.
The charge carries a maximum possible penalty of 20 years in prison.
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Conspiracy and money laundering charges against Jeffs were dropped as part of the agreement.
Prosecutor Robert Lund acknowledged that some people might not be satisfied with the deal, but he said the time Jeffs spent behind bars will serve as a deterrent.
Federal prosecutors will continue to keep close tabs on the group’s use of food stamps and plan to hold training sessions in the community to make sure people know what is allowed, Lund said.
Jeffs runs the group’s South Dakota compound and is a brother of Warren Jeffs, the sect’s leader who is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered wives.
Seth Jeffs declined to talk in court Wednesday other than to answer the judge’s questions. He smiled and laughed with his attorney Jay Winward before the proceeding.
Outside court, Winward said Jeffs is happy to go home to his family. Winward accused prosecutors of unfairly targeting his client due to his family connections.
“I’m not certain that if it were any individual besides Seth Jeffs that they wouldn’t simply just ask the person to stop donating their food to their church,” Winward said.
Known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the group believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven – a legacy of the early Mormon church. The mainstream Mormon church abandoned the practice in 1890 and strictly prohibits it today.
In an attempt to have charges dismissed due to religious beliefs, Seth Jeffs testified in October that he and other members of the group donated food bought with food stamps to a community storehouse because they believe everything on Earth belongs to God. He said the group’s leaders decide how best to redistribute the goods.
U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart refused to dismiss the charges on that argument, and Winward acknowledged Wednesday that he wasn’t sure that defense would have made a difference with a jury.
Lund said prosecutors opted not to seek repayment or fines from Jeffs because it wasn’t likely the government would ever get the money.
“The people in that community, including the defendants, are among the poorest people who live in Utah,” Lund said. “They have no ability to pay restitution.”
Lund would not say if a plea deal was possible with fugitive Lyle Jeffs, the highest-ranking sect leader accused in the scheme. He has been sought for more six months since he slipped out of a GPS ankle monitor and escaped home confinement in the Salt Lake City area.
“We'll have to cross that bridge when, and if, we are ever able to find him,” Lund said.