Circuit court hears Utah child-labor case tied to polygamous group

This February 2016 file photo shows FLDS children on a berm outside the Dairy Store in Hildale, Utah, Feb. 23, 2016. A judge recently ordered the FLDS church, bishop Lyle Jeffs and business associate | Photo by Kimberly Scott, St. George News

DENVER (AP) — A Utah contractor with ties to a polygamous group is set to appear in court Monday to challenge a judge’s finding that they put nearly 200 children to work picking pecans for long hours in the cold without pay.

Paragon Contractors’ lawyers argue the kids were volunteering with their families to pick up fallen nuts for the needy, and children looked forward to the break from home-schooling. They are appearing before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Paragon is challenging a ruling from U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell, who found the company forced kids as young as 6 years old to work in the cold during a 2012 pecan harvest in Southern Utah, sometimes with little food and few bathroom breaks.

Read more: Judge finds FLDS defendant in contempt of court for child labor law violation

Campbell ordered Paragon to pay $200,000 in back wages and submit to independent oversight. The company called the sanctions overreaching and unfair.

U.S. Department of Labor attorneys also say in court documents that the company changed its name and put children to work again on construction jobs in 2015 and 2016.

Prosecutors contend the company has deep ties to the polygamous sect led by Warren Jeffs and was under pressure to make money for its leaders when it used 1,400 unpaid workers, including 175 children.

Paragon worked closely with leaders of the secretive Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints along the Utah-Arizona border to funnel children to the harvest, U.S. Department of Labor attorney Karen Bobela has said.

Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted of sexually assaulting girls he considered brides. Group leaders don’t have a spokesman or contact where they can be reached.

The case was one of several aimed at reining in the group tied to abuses ranging from underage marriage to discrimination against nonmembers.

Read more: Petition seeks dismissal of Colorado City deputy for alleged misconduct

Labor lawyers also settled an underage labor case against another company linked to the group.

An Arizona jury, meanwhile, found that the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, violated the constitutional rights of nonbelievers by denying them basic services such as police protection.

Federal prosecutors in Utah also reached plea deals with several members accused in a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme.

Written by LINDSAY WHITEHURST and TATIANA FLOWERS, Associated Press. Flowers reported from Denver; Whitehurst from Salt Lake City.

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