FT. WORTH, Tex. _American taxpayers have unwittingly helped finance a polygamist sect that is now the focus of a massive child abuse investigation in West Texas, with a business tied to the group receiving a nearly $1 million loan from the federal government and $1.2 million in military contracts.
The ability of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, to operate and grow is largely dependent on huge contributions from its members and revenue from the businesses they control, according to a former accountant for the church, and government officials in Utah and Arizona, where the sect is primarily based.
One of those businesses, NewEra Manufacturing in Las Vegas, has been awarded more than $1.2 million in federal government contracts, with most of the money coming in recent years from the Defense Department for wheel and brake components for military aircraft.
A large portion of the awards were preferential no-bid or "sole source" contracts because of the company's classification as a small business, according to online databases that track federal government appropriations.
NewEra, previously known as Western Precision Inc. and located in Hildale, Utah, also received a $900,000 loan in 2005 from the federal Small Business Administration, the data show.
The president and chief executive of the company is John. C. Wayman, identified as an FLDS leader and a close associate to Warren Jeffs, the sect's "prophet," who was convicted last year as an accomplice to rape for arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin.
When Jeffs, who was one of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives, was arrested in the summer of 2006, he was driving Wayman's late-model red Cadillac Escalade, government officials say.
Wayman did not return phone calls seeking comment.
On NewEra's Web site Wayman says the company is "an honorable and valuable asset to our country" in helping build military and commercial airplanes that carry people throughout the world. He does not mention its ties to the FLDS.
Steve Barlow, human resources manager for NewEra, said last week that it would be inappropriate to comment, "Given everything that's going on. I could only give you the company motto: 'Good parts on time.'. "
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, the Fort Worth Republican who sits on the House Appropriations Committee that deals with issues of defense, military and homeland security, said she is surprised that the federal government is doing business with a group accused of mistreating women and children.
"It makes me very uneasy," Granger said. "It needs to be investigated without a doubt."
To begin with, she added, federal authorities should look into NewEra's financial records.
John Nielsen, who worked for the company when it was Western Precision in Hildale, said in a 2005 affidavit that he and other FLDS members were made to work for little or no wages, even as the company was bringing in lucrative government contracts and other work.
At the same time, $50,000 to $100,000 in company profits were going each month to FLDS "and/or" Jeffs, Nielsen said in the affidavit, filed as part of a civil lawsuit.
He said he and other sect members thought their working for free or for extremely low wages would bring them redemption. Instead, Nielsen said in the affidavit, he was found to be "wanting" by the sect's leadership, ordered off the property and separated from his five young children and his wife. She was "reassigned" to another man, becoming the fourth of his six wives.
"It broke my heart," Nielsen said in the affidavit. He declined to comment when reached by phone Friday.
In Texas, authorities raided the FLDS' sprawling YFZ Ranch near Eldorado on April 3, beginning an exhaustive search of its 1,691 acres. Authorities were acting on a tip from a 16-year-old girl inside the compound who said she had been beaten and raped by a 50-year-old man whom she was forced to marry.
Since then, a state district court judge has ordered the removal of 416 children, many of them young girls who have children or are pregnant after forced encounters with their "spiritual" husbands in the sect's towering white limestone temple, officials say.
"There's a lot of bad shit in there," said a high-ranking official with the federal Justice Department who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the case. On Tuesday, the Justice Department executed a sealed FBI search warrant at the ranch.
While the men of the sect have held close rein on their "plural wives" and children, seldom allowing them to associate with the outside world, the male leaders have fanned out into successful public business ventures. They work as government defense contractors, dairy farmers, engineers, construction contractors, log-cabin homebuilders and suppliers of lanyards, the cords used on eyeglasses or nametags.
In addition, JNJ Engineering, a company owned and operated by FLDS leaders, has made millions of dollars in Las Vegas, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in September. The company won $11.3 million in contract work from the Las Vegas Valley Water District; all but one of the project workers came from the twin towns of Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz., where most of the sect's 10,000 members live.
Jethro Barlow, a former accountant for the FLDS whom Warren Jeffs excommunicated in 2003, said Jeffs ordered sect members, their families and the companies they operated to "give till it hurts....
"And people did."
Jeffs was able to rally church members to tithe heavily, even if it hurt them financially, because he had convinced them that they had to prepare for the end of the world, Barlow said.
The fever-pitched preparation continued, even after several apocalyptic deadlines had passed. It motivated the rapid construction of the temple at the YFZ Ranch and the erection there of manufactured cabin-like homes made by sect members in Canada, he said.
Barlow, who remains in Hildale, said he believes he and his family were kicked out of the FLDS because they were not among the favored ones in Jeffs' flock.
Although Jeffs is now behind bars, sect members still consider him their leader and prophet, said Bruce Wisan, a nonmember appointed by the state of Utah to replace Jeffs as manager of a the FLDS' trust. Established in 1942 to "preserve and advance the religious doctrines" of the church, it is now estimated to be worth between $100 million and $150 million.
Under Jeffs' direction, Wisan said, sect households are required to tithe at least 10 percent of their gross income to the church, plus an extra $1,000 a month.
Tim Bodily, an assistant attorney over the tax division of the Utah attorney general's office, said Wisan has received little cooperation from those within the sect, which has traditionally shown distrust for outsiders.
"He's been provided no records at all, and no one inside the organization has provided any inside knowledge. ... It's a very difficult thing to do," Bodily said. "Progress moves slow when dealing with these people. Texas has its hands full."
Douglas is a staff writer with the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008