Texas raid on polygamists' compound cost $14 million plus

AUSTIN — The state's tab for operations associated with the roundup of more than 460 youngsters from a polygamist sect's ranch in West Texas has already topped $14 million, a figure that will rise as still-unsubmitted overtime, travel and professional services bills are tallied, newly released records show.

A review of more than 400 pages of invoices, travel receipts and state agency e-mails and spreadsheets obtained this week under state open records laws show that officials expect to pay more than $7 million for litigation stemming from the early April raid on the Yearning For Zion Ranch near Eldorado owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The Texas Attorney General Office is also being billed $110,000 for expenses related to DNA testing in an effort to positively identify the parents of every child taken into custody.

The raid on the YFZ Ranch sparked a legal skirmish that first resulted in a state district judge in San Angelo awarding Child Protective Services temporary custody of the children followed by the ruling by the Texas Supreme Court that resulted in the children being returned to their parents.

But the raid also put in place a hastily arranged plan to provide first for the mass-shelter care for the children at centers in San Angelo, and then at numerous foster care facilities around the state. The roundup also forced a small army of CPS caseworkers, law enforcement officers, private volunteers and legal teams into action at both Tom Green and Schleicher counties and in Austin.

Even though the state's highest court ruled that officials had overstepped their authority in the mass roundup, Texas officials have maintained that they uncovered clear evidence that the youngsters in the compound where teenage girls marry much older men were in imminent danger of abuse. A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, who has defended the state's action, insisted that the cost to taxpayers is justified.

"Any action taken to protect children is never misguided," said Krista Piferrer, Perry's deputy press secretary.

The documents released through the Texas Attorney General's Office and the governor's office show that state employees sent to Eldorado and San Angelo stayed mostly in moderately priced hotels such as La Quinta and Rodeway Inn. In many cases, employees sent e-mails to supervisors seeking permission before extending their stays or traveling between San Angelo and Eldorado.

Employees who wished to rent automobiles submitted forms showing that the rentals would cost the state less than if they simply drove their vehicles and were reimbursed for the mileage.

The costs associated with legal work involving the custody of the children and potential criminal charges accounted for the bulk of the state spending to date, the documents show. The state expects to pay nearly $4.5 million in attorney's fees, including for lawyers representing the state and for those appointed by the courts to assure that the children's rights were safeguarded.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars are earmarked for such expenses as expert witnesses, legal support personnel, office supplies and for visiting judges.

Fees for equipment, overtime pay, travel expenses, mostly for employees of the state's protective services agencies, appear to be the second largest share of the outlays to date. The state will pay about $2.4 million for the renting of buses and for the facilities that housed the children and some of the mothers early on in the operation. State workers racked up about $1.7 million in overtime and $1.2 million for travel and expenses during the first month of operations.

The documents also show that the Eldorado raid cost the Texas Department of Public Safety nearly $1.3 million, including $410,000 for officers' overtime pay and almost $82,000 for travel.

The documents do not include any of the bills submitted from several private charity providers that assisted the state with the operations, and it was unclear late Friday how many invoices from state employees have yet to be submitted.

"I think the (newly released documents) captured the vast majority of the overtime and the travel," said Stephanie Goodman, a spokesman for the state’s Health and Human Services Commission. "We’re still working with the foster care facilities to look at any costs not covered by the daily rates."

The documents included e-mails circulated among some of Perry's top staffers on how to respond to complaints that the state was delaying some employee reimbursements. The e-mails included "travel voucher talking points" explaining the process for ensuring prompt reimbursement and expressing empathy for employees who must pay their ever-rising gasoline bills upfront.

"We have been hearing a few anecdotal stories from staff that they are feeling the gas price pinch and that their reimbursements are taking too long," the talking points say before explaining how the reimbursement policy works.