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SALT LAKE CITY — A Fundamentalist LDS Church leader whom a judge confined to jail the day before walked out a free man Thursday after pleading guilty to misusing food stamp benefits.
In a deal with federal prosecutors, John Clifton Wayman, 57, admitted in U.S. District Court that he diverted Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits totaling at least $5,000 to people who weren't eligible to receive them.
Wayman's plea agreement is the first among 11 FLDS Church members charged with conspiracy to commit SNAP benefits fraud and money laundering. Others are expected to follow, with the exception of Lyle Jeffs, who fled from custody in the summer.
Prosecutors allege the group diverted at least $12 million in federal benefits, funneling some money into front companies and pay for a tractor, a truck and other items.
Judge Ted Stewart sentenced Wayman to six months in jail but gave him credit for time served per the agreement. Wayman has been behind bars since violating terms of a pretrial release agreement in July.
Assistant U.S. attorney Robert Lund said the resolution would help deter a "culture of fraud" in the FLDS community.
Prosecutors said Wayman has spent at least six months in jail since charges were filed in February, and Stewart agreed to have him released from the Davis County Jail on Thursday. Wayman also must attend a Department of Agriculture training class on the proper use of SNAP benefits.
Wayman did "hard time" in a county jail for someone who is a first-time offender, Lund said.
"In a case where although they committed welfare fraud, most of that money did go for food to feed hungry people, so we're trying to fairly weigh all the considerations of the case, and we think this is the right thing to do," he said.
Repaying the millions of dollars in diverted benefits was not part of the agreement.
"These people are extremely poor. There's not $12 million in that community to pay restitution," Lund said, adding that the government — not individual investors — was the victim. "We're willing to eat that cost."
Lund said the government would not offer Lyle Jeffs, who served as a bishop in the FLDS Church, the same deal.
"We will probably treat him differently at such time that we find him and bring him to justice," he said. "He was the bishop for many years, and so that in our mind makes him the most culpable in ordering parishioners to carry out this fraud."
Lund wouldn't characterize the possible plea deals for other defendants but indicated prosecutors would seek stronger sentences for those considered to be leaders.