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One of the 11 defendants charged in the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints food stamp case pleaded guilty to a felony in federal court on Thursday morning and was released from jail with time-served.
John Wayman initially charged with one felony count of conspiracy to defraud the nutrition assistance program and one count of conspiracy to launder money pleaded guilty to a lesser count of using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits contrary to the law.
His plea agreement came 48 hours after prosecutors argued to a judge that Wayman, a former bishop in the FLDS, shouldn't be released from jail because he couldn't be trusted to follow the judge's orders, or to not tamper with witnesses or destroy evidence.
Wayman, 57, was released from jail later Thursday. He will not have to serve probation, does not have to pay a fine or restitution other than a $100 court fee and does not have to testify or cooperate with the government.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Lund also told Judge Ted Stewart that prosecutors and the FBI have agreed not to pursue charges against Wayman for any other crimes they presently know of.
Those terms evoked criticism from former members of the FLDS. Brenda Nicholson, a former sect member who has emerged in the last year as one of the most vocal critics of the FLDS, wrote Thursday on Facebook about a telephone exchange she had earlier in the day with Lund.
"Wow. That did NOT go well!" she wrote. "He was unhappy with me! To put it lightly."
"He's offended at my 'uninformed, emotional opinions,' " Nicholson continued. "And shocked that I wasn't calling with huge congratulations and gratitude for a job well done.
"He also wanted me to understand that the Federal Government was the victim in this case. Not the people."
Nicholson's post then made reference to witness affidavits submitted by prosecutors earlier in the case. Those witnesses, who are former FLDS members, told of going hungry after "consecrating" SNAP cards or food purchased with the cards to the church. Church leaders, meanwhile, ate fine foods like fish and steak, according to the affidavits.
Prosecutors say FLDS leaders required sect members to turn over to the church their SNAP cards or the food purchased with them, and in some cases SNAP benefits were used at church-controlled stores and converted to cash.
Prosecutors had alleged that Wayman was one of the church leaders who counseled members to donate their SNAP benefits to the FLDS.
In court Thursday, Lund placed the criminal prosecutions in context with broader efforts by the federal government. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice received a favorable jury verdict against the polygamous towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., and the U.S. Department of Labor in 2016 successfully pursued civil cases against two FLDS businesses that used unpaid child workers.
Lund said the federal government was attacking a "culture of fraud" within the FLDS, and the agreement with Wayman was a reasonable step in that endeavor.
"We hope to arrest that conduct and deter that conduct," Lund said.
Lund also told the judge that prosecutors had identified "a litigation risk" in the case, given that they did not know how the judge would instruct the jury.
Wayman's attorney, Jim Bradshaw, has been among the defense attorneys who aggressively challenged whether donating SNAP benefits actually violate any law. Stewart had refused to dismiss the indictments, but said the jury could consider the defense arguments.
Stewart said of the plea deal: "This is a very satisfactory outcome. I think the government has been prudent, and I think, Mr. Bradshaw, this is a very successful outcome."
After court, Bradshaw said prosecutors never should have filed charges against the defendants.
"This case has always been a selective use of an obscure law regarding SNAP benefits," he said, "and I think it was targeted at a religion rather than at actual conduct."
Other defendants in the case are scheduled for trial Jan. 30, though it remains to be seen whether anyone will face a jury then.
Defense attorneys have said plea deals have been offered to all the defendants. At least two of those defendants, according to their attorneys, plan to accept those deals.
Another defendant, Lyle Jeffs, absconded in June and remains at large.