Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with a statement from the Church, which you can read below, that was not immediately available at publishing.
SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – James Huntsman, the brother of former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. and son of philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr., has filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of fraud, saying it spent members’ tithes meant for charity on commercial purposes.
The suit, filed in California, says the Latter-day Saints Corporation “dishonestly and fraudulently placed its own commercial financial interests above the loyalty and well-being of the Church’s most devout members, including Plaintiff James Huntsman.”
“This is not a case about faith; it is a case about fraud and corporate greed,” the suit continues.
The Washington Post, who first reported on this lawsuit, says this comes 16 months after a former high-level investment manager with the Church filed a whistleblower complaint to the IRS. That complaint, obtained by The Washington Post, alleges the Church amassed about $100 billion in accounts intended for charitable purposes and misled members by stockpiling surplus donations using the tax-exempt donations to prop up a pair of businesses.
The suit alleges Huntsman became aware of “the LDS Corporation’s fraud” via the whistleblower complaint filed by David Nielsen, a former senior portfolio manager of Ensign Peak Advisors (LDS Corporation’s investment division).”
According to Huntsman’s lawsuit, which you can read below, the Corporation has “repeatedly and publicly lied about the intended use of those funds, “promising they would go to purposes like missionary work, member indoctrination, temple work, and other educational and charitable activities.
“Behind the scenes, however, rather than using tithing funds for the promised purposes, the LDS Corporation secretly lined its own pockets by using the funds to develop a multi-billion dollar commercial real estate and insurance empire that had nothing to do with charity.”
Tithing funds are a one-tenth part of produce or earnings, paid as contributions or donations to a religious organization by members.
The suit continues, accusing the Church of misrepresenting “that tithing funds would not be used for the commercial development of the City Creek Mall, a for-profit shopping center in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, or for the bailout of a failing private insurance company, Beneficial Life Insurance.” Huntsman says he “recently discovered” the Latter-day Saints Corporation “spent an estimated $1.5 Billion of money donated by the Church’s members to develop the City Creek Mall alone.”
Now, according to court records, Huntsman is demanding the Church repay the “millions of dollars” he donated “over the course of more than two decades.” He says he “will then use the recovered funds to benefit organizations and communities whose members have been marginalized by the Church’s teachings and doctrines, including by donating to charities supporting LGBTQ, African-American, and women’s rights.”
“Unlike the LDS Corporation, Mr. Huntsman is confident that these charities will actually use his donations for intended purposes.”
The suit, seen below, outlines the multiple “misrepresentations” by the Church in which they repeatedly stated tithing funds would not be used to acquire the City Creek Mall. When Huntsman requested the Church return his donations, estimated to be more than $5 million, “the LDS Corporation refused.”
“To be clear, this case is neither an inquiry into nor a criticism of the religious tenets and beliefs of the Church. Mr. Huntsman has the utmost respect for the members of the Church, and likewise respects their beliefs and customs. Indeed, for almost his entire life, Mr. Huntsman was a devout and faithful member of the Church, taking on leadership roles and dedicating his time and resources to what he believed to be the Church’s righteous mission. Clearly, however, the LDS Corporation failed to treat Mr. Huntsman with the same respect.”
In a statement shared with ABC4, Eric Hawkins, spokesperson for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says:
“Mr. James Huntsman resigned his Church membership last year. Now, he is demanding through his lawyers that tithing he paid to the Church as charitable contributions be returned to him. He claims that, contrary to assurances made by past Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, the Church used tithing to build City Creek, a mixed use commercial development across the street from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City.
“In fact, tithing was not used on the City Creek project. As President Hinckley said in the April 2003 General Conference of the Church, the funds came from ‘commercial entities owned by the Church’ and the ‘earnings of invested reserve funds.’ A similar statement was made by President Hinckley in the October 2004 General Conference. Mr. James Huntsman’s claim is baseless.
“Tithing funds are voluntary contributions by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an expression of their faith in God. They are used for a broad array of religious purposes, including missionary work, education, humanitarian causes and the construction of meetinghouses, temples and other buildings important to the work of the Church, as reflected in scripture and determined by Church leaders.”
You can read the full lawsuit below:
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Huntsman, son of Huntsman Corporation founder Huntsman Sr., left the company to pursue personal interests in 2016. He is now listed as the founder of Blue Fox Entertainment, a film distribution firm in Southern California. He is also listed as the producer behind ‘Church & State,’ a 2018 film on the 2013 federal court ruling that legalized gay marriage and its impact on the Church in Utah.
In 2016, Huntsman joined the board of Equality Utah, which pushes for equal rights for the LGBTQ community.
Court records show the lawsuit was filed Monday; a future court date has yet to be set.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story mistakenly reported the lawsuit to be in excess of $500 million, the story has been updated to reflect the correct amount of $5 million.