DENVER — Lawyers for a Utah contractor with ties to a polygamous group appeared in court Monday to challenge a judge's finding that the company put nearly 200 children to work picking pecans for long hours in the cold, without pay.
Rick Sutherland, a lawyer for Paragon Contractors, argued in front of three federal judges at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver that the children, some as young as six, were volunteering with their families to pick up fallen nuts for the needy.
He added that the children looked forward to the break from home-schooling and that this kind of work has been going on for decades in polygamous sects like this one.
"The children were not forced to work by Mr. Barlow. They were asked by the church," Sutherland said of one of the company's owners.
"So if the children were asked to work and were not paid, you get off scot-free?" Judge Carlos Lucero snapped back in the courtroom.
Paragon is challenging a ruling from U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell, who found the company forced kids to work in hazardous conditions during a 2012 pecan harvest in southern Utah. There's no timeframe on when the panel of judges may rule.
According to court documents, the children were also sometimes deprived of water breaks and bathroom breaks. During inspections, employees were told to lie about child labor, using strategies and signals to hide the children's whereabouts, the documents allege.
Judge Campbell ordered Paragon to pay the Department of Labor $200,000 in back wages, which would be then used as compensation to the children. The company was also required to report every work site location, as well as the identity and ages of all of their employees. Brian Jessop, the company's owner was also tasked with reporting any change of employment. The company called the sanctions overreaching and unfair.
In addition to those accusations, attorneys for The U.S. Department of Labor say in court documents that the company changed its name from Paragon Contractors to Par 2 and in 2015 and 2016 it again put children to work on construction jobs.
Prosecutors contend the company has deep ties to a polygamous sect led by Warren Jeffs, who was under pressure to make money for its leaders when it used 1,400 unpaid workers, including 175 children.
Jeffs is currently serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted of sexually assaulting girls he considered brides. Now group leaders don't have a spokesman or contact where they can be reached.
Paragon worked closely with leaders of the secretive Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints along the Utah-Arizona border to funnel children to the harvest, U.S. Department of Labor attorney Karen Bobela has said.
The case was one of several aimed at reining in the group, which is tied to abuses ranging from underage marriage to discrimination against non-members. Labor lawyers also settled an underage labor case against another company linked to the group. And last year, an Arizona jury found that the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, violated the constitutional rights of nonbelievers by denying them basic services such as police protection.
Federal prosecutors in Utah also reached plea deals with several members accused in a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme.