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Federal prosecutors this week indicted 11 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) for conspiracy to commit fraud and money laundering. They are accused of swindling millions of dollars from the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is intended to help low-income individuals and families buy food.
The accused are part of a polygamous sect living in Utah and South Dakota. Those already arrested on the fraud charges pled not guilty. But the church's founder, Warren Jeffs, is serving a sentence of life in prison on child sex abuse convictions and, NPR reports, many church members believe this latest move proves the federal government is persecuting them for their religious beliefs.
"This indictment is not about religion. This indictment is about fraud," U.S. Attorney John W. Huber said in a statement. According to federal prosecutors, church members received millions of dollars of SNAP benefits every year, which church leaders then asked them to donate. Some recipients transferred their SNAP benefits to church-owned stores but got no food.
The indictment explains that church members who aspire to be in "the United Order" -- the highest level of worthiness in the church -- must donate their material assets to the FLDS Storehouse, "a communal clearinghouse charged with collecting and disbursing commodities to the community."
The feds say that for years FLDS leaders had members divert their SNAP benefits to the Storehouse, and provided instructions on how to avoid suspicion and detection by the government. The money from this alleged scheme allegedly helped finance equipment purchases and more
The indictment included two brothers of the church's imprisoned founder and leader, Warren Jeffs. Lyle Jeffs has been leading the church since his brother's incarceration and pled not guilty to the charges leveled at him this week. The Jeffs accuse the government of religious persecution.
But according to yet another Jeffs family member, this latest set of arrests could deal a serious blow to the church. Wallace Jeffs, a half-brother of Warren Jeffs and an expelled church member, told reporters, "This pretty much cuts the head off the snake."
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