Prominent Ex-Mormon Continues Case Alleging Tithe Misuse: James Huntsman Seeks Refund of At Least $10 Million

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James Huntsman is continuing his crusade in federal court against what he sees as the Mormon Church’s misuse of tithes.

Mr. Huntsman, brother of former Utah governor and Republican presidential candidate John Huntsman, filed the underlying cause of action in March in the Central District of California alleging that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spent tithes on commercial real estate projects instead of on missionary work, temple construction and charitable projects.

“The church will defend itself on appeal,” said Rick Richmond, a Los Angeles-based attorney who represented the church.

Mr. Huntsman, whose opening brief is due to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Jan. 5, alleges he paid at least $10 million in tithing and seeks a refund, but Mr. Richmond counters that his contributions were voluntary and were given with no strings attached.

“The law says he cannot get them back,” he said.

Among Mr. Huntsman’s allegations is that the church spent tithing money on the development of a mixed-use project called City Creek Center across the street from the historic Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City.

However, Mr. Richmond told PacerMonitor News that no tithing money was spent on the development of City Creek Center.

“All of the funds for the City Creek project came from the earnings on the church’s invested reserve funds and from commercial entities affiliated with the church,” he said. “Mr. Huntsman began making his contributions to the church long before the City Creek project began, all during the development of the project, and after the project was finished. He only stopped making contributions because he stopped believing in church doctrines, lost his faith and then quit the church.”

Church members started investing in 1848 when Brigham Young became their leader after the founder, Joseph Smith, an abolitionist and candidate for U.S. president, was murdered in Carthage, Ill., in 1844.

“As soon as early church members got to Utah Valley, they started using some amount of contributions to get the church and its members self-sufficient,” Mr. Richmond said in an interview. “Brigham Young established the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution in 1848. So, the church has always invested in various commercial activities in the early days as a matter of survival and as a way of investing some amount of reserves in a variety of ways to create a cushion for a rainy day.”

On Sept. 10, U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson granted the church’s request for summary judgment stating that he could not find any evidence of fraudulent statements made by church officials about spending earnings on invested tithes on commercial projects as opposed to spending tithes on commercial projects.

“Plaintiff offers no evidence that creates a genuine issue of material fact,” Judge Wilson wrote in the Sept. 10 decision. “Plaintiff does not argue that earnings on invested tithing funds were not actually used. For example, plaintiff does not identify any specific flaws in the accounting or calculations provided by the defendant’s declarant. Instead, the plaintiff simply argues that there is no distinction between tithing funds and earnings on invested tithing funds.”

Mr. Huntsman’s attorney, David Jonelis, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

“The judge dug deeply into the financial records that the church provided to him and on the basis of the unopposed facts that were revealed in those records, he came to the decision we believed in and hoped he would,” Mr. Richmond said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is known for sending young adult missionaries all over world to proselytize and for conducting ceremonies, such as baptisms and confirmations, for deceased relatives in giant gothic-like white temples laden with gold.

A church investment fund, Ensign Peak Advisors (EPA), ended 2020 with an increase of $6.2 billion from $37.8 billion, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission documents.

David Nielsen, an Ensign senior portfolio manager, offered testimony in support of Mr. Huntsman stating that funds were administered by a church committee known as the Council on the Disposition of the Tithes.

“Over a five-year period, the Council approved EPA’s withdrawal of approximately $1.4 billion in tithing funds to pay for the commercial development of the City Creek Mall,” Mr. Nielsen stated in an affidavit. “The Council likewise approved EPA’s withdrawal of $600 million in tithing funds to bail out a company called Beneficial Life Insurance Company.”

But Mr. Richmond said 120 pages of financial records prove that Mr. Nielsen is wrong.

“The idea that the church owned a life insurance company called Beneficial Life and supported it in one way or another was never a secret,” he added. “No one in the church ever said that they were not going to support Beneficial Life. So, the church did not fraudulently support Beneficial Life Insurance Company.”

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