Lawsuit accuses Mormon church of fraud in use of donations

SOPHIA EPPOLITO
·2-min read
FILE - In this April 4, 2020, file photo, is The Salt Lake Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. James Huntsman, a member of one of Utah's most prominent families and brother of a former governor, sued The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, accusing it of fraud and seeking to recover millions of dollars in contributions. The federal lawsuit, filed Monday, March 22, 2021, asserts that the church spent members’ donations that were solicited for charity on commercial purposes. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — James Huntsman, a member of one of Utah's most prominent families and brother of a former governor, sued The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, accusing it of fraud and seeking to recover millions of dollars in contributions.

The federal lawsuit, filed Monday, asserts that the church spent members’ donations that were solicited for charity on commercial purposes. Huntsman alleges the Utah-based faith known widely as the Mormon church has “repeatedly and publicly lied” about the use of billions of dollars in contributions meant to pay for missionary work, temples and other educational and charitable work.

Huntsman, brother of former U.S. diplomat and ex-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and son of late billionaire philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr., said he was defrauded out of millions during the 24 years he gave 10% of his annual income to the church. He runs a film distribution company in Southern California.

“This is not a case about faith; it is a case about fraud and corporate greed,” the lawsuit said.

Members are asked to contribute 10% of their income to the church. The practice, which is used in other faith groups, isn’t required for church members but is strongly encouraged.

The Washington Post initially reported the lawsuit Monday.

A church spokesman said in a statement that James Huntsman resigned his church membership last year and called his claims “baseless.”

Contributions "are used for a broad array of religious purposes, including missionary work, education, humanitarian causes and the construction of meetinghouses, temples and other buildings important in the work of the Church,” Eric Hawkins said in the statement.

The lawsuit comes more than a year after a former church investment manager filed a whistleblower complaint with the IRS, which The Washington Post initially obtained in December 2019.

The complaint alleged that the church has misled members and possibly broken federal tax rules for religious organizations by using an affiliated investment arm to set aside about $1 billion a year from the $7 billion that the faith receives annually in member donations.

In the lawsuit, Huntsman says he repeatedly demanded the return of his donations following the whistleblower complaint but the church's corporation refused, "effectively taking the position that it could do whatever it wanted with tithing funds.”

Hawkins has said the claims are “based on a narrow perspective and limited information.”

Huntsman is seeking $5 million in damages, which he plans to give to “organizations and communities whose members have been marginalized by the Church’s teachings and doctrines, including by donating to charities supporting LGBTQ, African-American, and women’s rights.”

___

Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.