SALT LAKE CITY (CBSDFW.COM/AP) — Nearly 200 children from a polygamous sect whose leader, Warren Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas, had to work long hours in the cold, as they picked pecans for a Utah contracting company with ties to the group, a federal judge found in a decision that marks the latest blow to the group.
U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell held Paragon Contractors in contempt of court, siding with federal labor lawyers who said kids as young as 6 were sent to the harvest.
The government said the company had deep connections to the sect led by Jeffs and was under pressure to make money for its leaders before it used 1,400 workers, including 175 children, as unpaid labor.
Paragon denied that, saying families from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints volunteered to pick up fallen nuts in the city of Hurricane, about 300 miles south of Salt Lake City. Defense attorneys argued that kids looked forward to taking the break from home-schooling to build up food supplies for the needy. Lawyer Rick Sutherland declined to comment on the ruling Thursday.
The decision handed down Wednesday comes as the federal government wages fights on multiple fronts to rein in the secretive group tied to abuses from underage marriage to discrimination against non-members.
Jurors in Phoenix found March 7 that the twin polygamous towns on the Utah-Arizona border violated the constitutional rights of nonbelievers by denying them basic services such as police protection.
A grand jury in Utah also has indicted several church leaders on charges of conducting a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme.
Campbell's decision comes after she heard from five children and teenagers who said they were pulled out of classes to work long hours while they were growing up in the sect. They said they were exposed to cold rain, barred from resting in nearby vans and often given only one snack to eat.
In the decision handed down Wednesday, Campbell cited testimony that some of the youngest children wet their pants because there weren't enough portable toilets for all the workers.
Paragon owner Brian Jessop testified that his company was only responsible for the machines that shook the nuts off the trees and that a contracted harvest manager arranged for families to pick up the leftovers.
Prosecutors say Paragon knew children were working and Jessop sent his own kids to the pecan fields, though the defense disputes that. Prosecutors asked a judge to order Paragon to pay back wages and be monitored by an independent overseer for years. Campbell will hear from both sides again before making a decision on the penalty.
The U.S. Department of Labor has already ordered Paragon and several members of the polygamous group to pay $1.9 million after the agency found that sect leaders directed the harvest.
Betty Campbell with the Department of Labor said officials were pleased with the judge's decision. The investigation into the harvest started after TV news cameras captured images of children working in the fields.
Authorities say those leaders are loyal to Jeffs, who was convicted of sexually assaulting girls he considered brides. The sect does not have a spokesman or a phone listing where leaders can be contacted.
Sect members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. It is a legacy of the early teachings of the Mormon church, but the mainstream faith abandoned the practice more than century ago.
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