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  Lawmakers Move to Fight Suspected Crimes by Sect Members

By Jason Embry
Austin American-Statesman

July 25, 2008

http://www.statesman.com/news/content/news/stories/local/07/25/0725polygamy.html

Texas attorney general said help from federal task force would be welcome.

WASHINGTON Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants the federal government to use more muscle to fight possible organized crime among polygamists, such as those living at the Yearning For Zion ranch in West Texas.

Reid, D-Nev., has introduced legislation that would launch a federal task force, which would be made up of several agencies, to combat what Reid described as a broad pattern of crimes, including child abuse, welfare fraud, corruption and tax evasion.

Reid found a supporter of his plan in Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday that more federal help is needed because polygamists' alleged activities often cross state lines.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, known as FLDS, might have never come to Texas if officials in other states had available to them the kind of federal help that Reid wants, Abbott said.

"The FLDS group is very difficult to penetrate," Abbott said. "They have a veil of silence that they operate under, and as a result, the kind of evidence that's necessary to prosecute the crimes that they may be committing is difficult to obtain. I think with what Senator Reid is proposing, what the committee is considering, it will provide greater tools for the federal authorities to help go in and begin to eradicate some of the criminal activity that may be taking place."

Abbott announced Tuesday the indictment of Warren Jeffs, leader of the FLDS sect, and four of his followers on charges of felony sexual assault of a child. A sixth sect member was charged with failing to report child abuse.

Texas child-welfare officials removed more than 400 children from the group's West Texas ranch in April on suspicions of child abuse, but the Texas Supreme Court later ruled that the state overreached and the children should be returned.

Sect representatives who attended Thursday's hearing dismissed this week's indictments as unproven allegations and said there was no evidence presented at the committee meeting of the crimes that were discussed.

Abbott said federal officials such as U.S. Marshals and the FBI could help find indicted sect members if they flee. Following Jeffs' indictment on child abuse charges in Arizona and Utah, authorities went on a two-year manhunt before arresting him in August 2006.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said at the hearing that the FLDS church has businesses in Arizona, Utah, Texas, Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming. "The details of multistate business operations, which may involve non-reporting of taxable income, have eluded the reach of state investigators," Goddard said.

But Brett Tolman, the U.S. attorney for Utah, said federal, state and local officials are working to combat crimes associated with polygamist groups. Pointing out that polygamist communities are difficult to infiltrate, Tolman said more subtle, covert investigative tools might work better than a high-profile task force.

Abbott and officials from Arizona, Utah and Nevada spoke before a full committee room. Only three of 19 senators stayed for most of the hearing, and they did not raise questions about whether the April raid in Texas was appropriate.

The committee did not hear from any members of the FLDS church or their representatives in attendance.

Jim Bradshaw, a lawyer for the FLDS church, suggested that Reid, a Mormon, had taken on the issue because he wanted to draw a distinction between the FLDS and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"If there are things that have gone wrong within this community, they should be investigated, they should be prosecuted," Bradshaw said. "It's just like any other community. But you don't take an entire group of people and go after them, target them, profile them, without evidence, and that's exactly what you heard today."

As for the investigation in Texas that led to this week's indictments, Abbott said it is far from over.

"We still have a lot of documents that we have to piece through before we can take further steps in our investigative process," he said. "We're still evaluating the DNA evidence that has been obtained, and separate from those two items there are other types of evidence that we will be taking a look at."

Contact: jembry@statesman.com; (202)-887-8329

 
 

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