Ariz. sues polygamist sect for alleged discrimination - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Ariz. sues polygamist sect for alleged discrimination

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Posted: Thursday, July 8, 2010 7:42 am

The Arizona Attorney General's office alleges in a newly filed lawsuit that leaders in a polygamous community violated a disabled man's civil rights by denying him power and water service because he does not belong to the faith.

The lawsuit chronicles attempts by Ronald and Jinjer Cooke to get utility services connected to a home they are renting from the United Effort Plan Trust, which owns virtually all property in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

A majority of residents in the towns are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a splinter group that believes in polygamy. FLDS members hold all elected and appointed positions in the cities. And the polygamist sect controls the trust.

The federal lawsuit alleges the cities' jointly operated water and power utility companies violated the Arizona Fair Housing Act in refusing the Cookes' request for water service.

It asks that the court order the Twin City Water Authority to connect the Cookes' rental home to the community's water system and provide service to any other non-FLDS resident who requests a hook up. It also asks the entities be fined $50,000 for the initial violation and $100,000 for any additional violations.

Ronald Cooke grew up in the twin towns but left the faith when he was about 18. He moved to Phoenix, where he worked in construction. In 2005, Cooke was doing road work when he was hit by a truck and suffered numerous injuries, including a traumatic brain and spinal cord injury.

Cooke decided to return to the community to be near family and in February 2008 signed an occupancy agreement with the UEP Trust's Housing Advisory Board for an unfinished, unoccupied home on Academy Avenue.

Cooke; his wife, Jinjer; and their three children moved a travel trailer onto the property that May. They planned to stay in the trailer for about a month while the single-level home was finished and connected to the utility systems.

According to the lawsuit, Cooke needs running water to "clean catheters, bathe frequently, avoid infection and wash laundry" and electricity to operate an assisted-breathing machine he uses at night.

But the cities either took no action or rejected several applications filed by Cooke for water service, claiming the utility department could not provide new connections because of an ongoing water shortage in the community. City officials said approving his application would only lead to more requests for new connections and overload the system.

Cooke filed a housing discrimination complaint with the Arizona Civil Rights Division in December 2008, alleging disability and religious discrimination. The division ruled in his favor in April and set a deadline of June 25 for the parties to try to resolve the dispute or face state action.

Garkane Power, which is not associated with the twin cities, eventually delivered electricity to the home, but Cooke still does not have water service.

Meanwhile, other problems have surfaced: Robert Black, the home's original occupant, tried to assert his claim to the property but a UEP representative denies Black has any right to the home. Also, an irrigation company has accused the Cookes of diverting water -- something they deny.

The lawsuit alleges the cities placed numerous demands on Cooke -- such as requiring him to provide construction plans and building permits, and to pay hookup fees -- that it does not require of FLDS members.

Blake Hamilton, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents Hildale City and the utility departments, said the entities learned of the lawsuit after it was attached to a filing in a separate matter in a Utah court last week.

"It is unfortunate this lawsuit has been filed. It is important that people know (the entities) worked very hard to resolve this matter before it went into litigation," he said.

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