Polygamous leader pleads guilty in food stamp fraud case

FILE - In this April 6, 2016, file photo, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints women leave the Federal Courthouse following a hearing in Salt Lake City. Utah polygamous group leader John Wayman, charged in a multimillion dollar food-stamp fraud case, agreed to a plea deal in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 22, that secures his release from jail after six months. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – A high-ranking Utah polygamous group leader charged in a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud case agreed to a plea deal Thursday that secured his release from jail after six months.

John Wayman, 57, was one of a nearly a dozen people accused of orchestrating a scheme to funnel $12 million worth of followers’ food stamp benefits into vehicle-purchasing front companies and toward funding leaders’ lavish lifestyles.

Defense attorneys had argued the group members were following religious beliefs in sharing what they had with the whole.

Federal prosecutors said they’re satisfied with the time Wayman has spent behind bars since meeting with another leader in the middle of the night to plan a church meeting, a violation of his supervised release.

Wayman pleaded guilty to a felony food-stamp fraud charge and was sentenced Thursday to time served. Plea deals could be in the works for others charged in the case, prosecutors said.

Days before inking the deal that set Wayman free, prosecutors successfully argued that he had to stay in jail because he is faithful to the group’s prophet Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered wives.

Wayman was accused of preaching about the importance of donating resources to the common good as well as once giving a federal benefit card to a member of his household to buy things for someone else, his lawyer Jim Bradshaw said.

He argued his client was kept behind bars partially because Lyle Jeffs, who is the imprisoned leader’s brother, remains on the run. Lyle Jeffs is also charged in the case and had been in home confinement when he escaped.

“Our justice system doesn’t lump people together. You don’t serve time because another member of your religion does something,” he said.

Prosecutors, though, said Wayman’s circumstances changed when he pleaded guilty. The deal is a fair end to one of several cases in two states aimed at reining in a “culture of fraud” in the secretive group tied to abuses ranging from child labor to discrimination against non-members, prosecutor Robert Lund said.

While prosecutors say the money was illegally moved around and some was spent on luxuries for leaders, Lund acknowledged that much of it went to poor members of the group known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

“Mothers trying to feed their children didn’t have the money they needed to feed their children because they had to give it all to their church,” Lund said. “The church was trying to feed an entire community on the benefits of a handful of people.”

There were other challenges in taking the case to trial, including the legal question of whether food-stamp rules specifically prevent people from donating their benefits to a church, he said.

U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart called the deal a “very satisfactory outcome.”

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