WASHINGTON — A Senate committee on Thursday heard appeals for the creation of a federal task force to combat polygamist sects that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid described as sophisticated organized crime rings.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose office has received nationwide attention for its investigation of a sect in Texas, was among those backing legislation sponsored by Reid, D-Nev. The bill would establish a task force in the U.S. Department of Justice and assist victims of polygamist groups.
The hearing, which included testimony from two former sect members, spotlighted the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Saints (FLDS) led by Warren Jeffs, who was once on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. Jeffs and four of his followers were indicted Tuesday by a grand jury in Texas for felony assault of a child.
Abbott told reporters after the hearing that further action is likely as investigators sift through "boxes and boxes" of documents and examine other evidence. "I would say we're in the early stages of our investigation," Abbott said.
Reid, who once took on mob bosses when he sought to clean up Las Vegas casinos as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that polygamist sects are a "form of organized crime" that have spread into numerous states, as well as Canada and Mexico.
"I am not saying that they are the same thing as the crime syndicates that used to run Las Vegas," Reid said. "But they engage in an ongoing pattern of serious crimes that we ignore at our peril."
He cited a "web of criminal conduct that includes welfare fraud, tax evasion, massive corruption and strong-arm tactics."
Carolyn Jessop of West Jordan, Utah, who escaped an FLDS community in Arizona in 2003, said that Jeffs exerted a "tyrannical hold" on sect members and performed secret marriages between underage girls and older men. Boys and girls as young as 12 were forced out of public schools to work for FLDS construction companies and other businesses, in shifts that lasted from 6 a.m. until after dark, she said.
Children were also "indoctrinated" with taped teachings from Jeffs. One message, she said, was that "if a man is instructed by the (FLDS) prophet to take the life of another human being, he should do so in humility."
Another FLDS practice was known as "bleeding the beast," she said. The beast was the U.S. government, and FLDS members were instructed to avoid paying taxes and to apply for every "possible type of government assistance," said Jessop.
Dan Fischer, a former polygamist who now runs a foundation to help young people who have left the FLDS, said the sect has grown to "disturbing cult level proportions" under Jeffs' leadership.
"Without question, FLDS members will sacrifice self, family and children if directed to by their leader," he said.
Principle Voices, a polygamy advocacy organization, denounced Reid's bill. "If Reid truly cares about women and children in polygamy, then he should help them, not hurt them," the group said in a statement. "Principle Voices strenuously objects to any effort to characterize our families as anything but what they are: families."
The hearing coincided with Pioneer Day, which Mormons celebrate around the world to commemorate the arrival of Mormon pioneers to Salt Lake Valley, Utah, in 1847. The Mormon Church outlawed polygamy more than a century ago, but breakaway sects have continued the practice.
The FLDS was originally based at isolated locations in Utah and Arizona but has since moved to other states. In Texas, more than 400 children were placed in foster care from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in El Dorado, Texas, but the Texas Supreme Court later ordered the children returned to their parents, ruling that the state had overstepped its authority.
The indictments issued Tuesday charge Jeffs and four of his followers with sexually assaulting girls under the age of 17. A sixth member was indicted on three counts of failure to report child abuse.
FLDS representatives have accused the state of religious persecution. But Abbott vigorously dismissed the criticism as a "smokescreen" to distract from the investigation into sexual assault allegations.
Abbott said Reid's legislation is necessary because polygamist groups are becoming a national problem. The state's current investigation may not have been necessary if a task force had been in place five or 10 years ago, he said.
But U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman of Utah said that a task force "may not be a good fit" in investigating polygamist sects. The communities are self-contained and hard to penetrate, and their members are frequently uncooperative with law enforcement, he said.
"In this context, a task force may be too blunt an instrument to accomplish an effective investigation," he said.