Mayor refuses to testify in suit against polygamous towns

Phoenix • For 45 minutes Wednesday, an attorney asked the mayor of a mostly polygamous town about the relationship between his church and his government, and for 45 minutes the man refused to answer.

Mayor Joseph Allred, of Colorado City, Ariz., took the stand as part of a civil rights lawsuit filed against his town and neighboring Hildale, Utah. Ron and Jinjer Cooke claim that the city government discriminated against them because they aren’t members of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In documents filed this week, the Cookes’ lawyers call Allred a "critical" witness because he wrote to FLDS leader Warren Jeffs seeking guidance, served on a church security team and did other things that intertwined civil and religious authority.

But during his testimony Wednesday during the trial in U.S. District Court for Arizona, Allred wouldn’t talk about any of that. When asked about using public funds for private expenses, writing to Jeffs while the sect leader was a fugitive and even being a member of the FLDS Church, Allred had only one answer: "at the instruction of counsel, I am asserting my rights under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and respectfully decline to answer." Allred repeated the response dozens of times. As a result, jurors were left to draw their own conclusions from the unanswered questions about religious control of the municipal government.

The testimony came after Allred tried to avoid taking the stand altogether; court documents reveal that he planned to refuse to testify, despite being subpoenaed. The Cookes’ attorneys asked the judge to compel Allred to take the stand.

The request sparked a brief legal skirmish Wednesday — attorneys for the cities argued Allred’s testimony was essentially a "stink bomb" designed to stir up prejudice against their clients — but the judge ultimately required Allred to testify.

Allred’s testimony came after Jinjer Cooke spent most of the day under cross examination. During her testimony she explained that life was difficult after her family moved to Colorado City and couldn’t get utilities. At one point, she became emotional as she spoke of spending two winters in a freezing trailer and of hauling sewage water away with her son.

"My son and me were the only ones who could basically stand to do that job," she said, adding that her daughter once tried but threw up.

The Cookes spent more than two years living in a 35-foot trailer waiting for water, sewer and electricity to be hooked up to their unfinished home. They eventually got sewer and electricity hookups, but still don’t have water.

But for much of the day Wednesday, attorney Blake Hamilton, representing Hildale, said the family brought their woes on themselves. His main arguments boiled down to three significant points:

• The Cookes never paid their impact fees to get a sewer hookup.

• They never completed the city’s required checklist to get electricity.

• They never complied with the city’s water policy.

Hamilton also argued that the Cookes were aware of these requirements but knowingly ignored them. Their goal, Hamilton said, was to sue the cities in order to get around the policies. To make that point, Hamiltion showed a series of letters indicating the Cookes were told about the sewage and electric policies soon after arriving in the community.

The Cookes also knew about the community’s water policy, Hamilton said. The water is the trickiest of the three utilities in the case because the Cookes and the cities disagree about what exactly the policy was. The Cookes say that in 2010, the cities started claiming a water shortage meant there could be no new water hookups unless those hookups added water to the overall system. They believe the policy was invented as an excuse to deny them water.

However, the cities have said that policy predates the Cookes arrival and is a response to a real water crisis. Hamilton showed several documents Wednesday in court from 2008 that seemingly indicated the Cookes were told about the water shortage.

Hamilton also pointed out Wednesday that the Cookes moved into an unfinished home yet never contacted the property owner — the United Effort Plan trust — about getting utilities. The UEP even has water rights in the community, Hamilton said, and could have helped the Cookes get water.

Later, after the family had sewer hookups, the city worked to fix that hookup after it became damaged. The Cookes never received a bill for the service.

"And you’re claiming they discriminated against you?" Hamilton asked, posing a rhetorical question he repeated several times during the day.

"They have," Jinjer Cooke shot back.

Hamilton also presented a series of police reports that he suggested show the Cookes failing to cooperate with officers. The reports were sparked by Jinjer Cooke contacting police, but in some cases she refused to call investigators back or accept their help. In one instance, for example, an officer offered to increase patrols near her home after she reported vandalism, but she declined the offer.

The message was clear: the cities believe they were doing everything the should do to help the Cookes, but the family was determined to sue.

The city attorneys believe the entire issue stems from battles over land, with the Cookes acting as pawns to help the UEP subdivide and sell off property. Hamilton also pointed out that the Cookes learned how to file a civil rights lawsuit at a meeting of Safety Net — a group that deals with challenges in the polygamous community — and filed before ever bothering to pay their fees or fill out their utility applications.

But William Walker, who represents the Cookes, painted a different picture Wednesday. When he questioned Jinjer Cooke, she said she didn’t trust the police and their reports don’t represent their actual treatment of the family. She also said she didn’t move into a friend’s home or dig a well — both things Hamilton brought up — because she needed to stay in Arizona for her husband’s disability benefits and because officials told her she wasn’t allowed to tap into the ground water on her own.

Later, Jinjer Cooke said she didn’t comply with city policy because she was always given "the runaround" and denied the information she needed.

Most of Walker’s questions came a day earlier when Jinjer Cooke first took the stand, but he reiterated his point Wendesday with a question: "Do you feel as if the problems you’ve had were the result of religious discrimination?"

"I know that they were," Jinjer Cooke replied.

The Cookes and their attorneys are expected to finish their case Thursday, at which time attorneys for the cities will begin calling their witnesses.