A federal judge has ordered a company with ties to a polygamous sect to pay at least $200,000 in back wages to children who were sent to work picking pecans for long hours in the cold.
U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell handed down the sharply worded order after deciding that Paragon Contractors sent kids as young as 6 to the 2012 harvest, sometimes with little food and few bathroom breaks.
"Behind a veil of secrecy in Southern Utah's desert country the defendants profited from the labor of a religious community's children," Campbell wrote in Tuesday's order. She also ordered the company to pay the cost of being monitored by an independent overseer for five years.
Defense attorneys have said the children were glad to get a break from schoolwork to gather nuts for the needy. They called sanctions first proposed by prosecutors overreaching and unfair. Paragon lawyers didn't immediately return calls seeking comment Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Labor asked for the $200,000 to be set aside so children who didn't get paid could submit their hours and be reimbursed. 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, attorney Karen Bobela said.
The company has deep connections to the sect led by Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted of sexually assaulting girls he considered brides. The company was under pressure to make money for its leaders when it sent children to the fields, she said. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints doesn't have a spokesman or contact where it can be reached.
Prosecutors also asked for the independent overseer, arguing that there's one federal labor investigator in the region and he can't keep an eye on Paragon while completing his other responsibilities.
Paragon lawyers pushed back against those proposals at a September hearing, saying the company's financial situation has changed since it reported revenues of $4.5 million in 2011 and there haven't been any new allegations over the last few years.
The case is one of several aimed at reining in the group tied to abuses ranging from underage marriage to discrimination against non-members. Labor lawyers also filed a case against another company linked to the group over underage labor allegations, though that case has now been settled.
Meanwhile, an Arizona jury found this spring that the twin polygamous towns of Hillsdale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, violated the constitutional rights of nonbelievers by denying them basic services such as police protection.
Several members have also been charged in Utah with conducting a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme, though leader Lyle Jeffs escaped home confinement in that case and remains on the run.