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WASHINGTON - Polygamous groups have formed into a "sophisticated, wealthy and vast criminal organization" that the federal government must aggressively pursue, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid testified Thursday.
Despite opposition by polygamist sects and wariness from federal prosecutors, that action will happen either within the next five months or with a new administration, Reid vowed after the first congressional hearing on polygamy in more than a half-century.
"The lawless conduct of polygamous communities in the United States deserves national attention and federal action," Reid told the Senate Judiciary Committee during a nearly three-hour hearing where witnesses tossed out allegations of pervasive criminal activity in the sects.
Reid, a Mormon convert who called for the hearing and is pushing legislation to create a federal task force to combat crimes associated with polygamy, told reporters it was clear there would be federal involvement in tamping down what he said is a form of organized crime. He said he hopes to get his measure through this year, but if not, it would happen with the incoming president, whomever that is.
Allegations of child abuse, welfare fraud, tax evasion and underage marriages peppered Thursday's hearing. One sect in particular was singled out: the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has a presence in Utah, Texas, Nevada, Colorado, South Dakota and British Columbia.
In April, Texas authorities raided the FLDS ranch, near Eldorado, and placed more than 400 children into custody. Virtually all have returned to their homes. On Tuesday, six FLDS members, including imprisoned sect leader Warren S. Jeffs, were indicted; Jeffs and four men were charged with first-degree sexual assault; one of those men also is charged with bigamy. Another man was indicted on failure to report child abuse.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who co-chairs a government commission on human rights, said he was shocked to hear how women and children are treated in the polygamous lifestyle.
"What is happening here is as bad as anything I've seen in the world: Children and families that have been denied basic human rights because of the activities of those involved in these polygamists colonies," Cardin said. "It is a difficult to understand how this can occur in the United States."
A few rows back, several members of the FLDS church sat stone-faced through all the accusations flowing from the witness table. Two women, in neck-to-toe dresses and hair woven into buns, bookended two men in gray suits; they didn't comment publicly but acknowledged they were part of the sect.
Jim Bradshaw, a Salt Lake City attorney who said he was acting as the group's spokesman, railed against the hearing and Reid for not allowing anyone from the sect or the lifestyle to defend themselves.
"You don't take an entire group of people and go after them, target them, profile them, without any evidence and that's exactly what you heard here today," Bradshaw said.
The sham hearing, he said, was meant only to allow Mormon senators - Reid and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah - to hammer home that the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the same as the FLDS sect. The LDS Church banned polygamy in 1890 but some splinter groups still practice the doctrine.
"You couldn't listen to that hearing and come away with any conclusion other than these senators who are LDS are very concerned about being tied to the FLDS, and this hearing, in large respect, is about trying to distinguish or run away from the issues," Bradshaw said. That's fine, he added, to "distinguish the churches but if that means we're going to persecute the FLDS, that's wrong."
Reid acknowledged that his faith did play a part in holding the hearing, but that any faith should be concerned about the criminal allegations in the sect. And he dismissed questions of why no FLDS members were invited to defend themselves at the hearing.
"If you're working on sexual exploitation of children, you don't bring in the people who are exploiting the children to testify," he said. "That's a pretty easy question to answer."
Willie Jessop, an FLDS member who at one point came close enough to the witness table that Capitol Police officers in the room moved forward, said the witnesses all have a vendetta against the group.
"They're using a broad brush, trying to target one religion for a personal agenda," he said.
While two former FLDS members called on Congress to take action against the group, there was some hesitancy from two federal prosecutors about the need. U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman said that talk of a federal task force on polygamy had already hurt efforts to investigate the insular sects.
"We're already seeing that some of the rhetoric on targeting this specific group has caused some reluctance by people we were working with for fear that it's a massive, roundup - that something of that nature is going to happen," Tolman said during a break from the hearing. "We've tried to assure them there is no raid forthcoming."
But a raid by Texas authorities in many ways prompted Thursday's hearing, and has put the spotlight back on polygamous sects. Thursday's hearing was the first since 1955 focused on polygamy and drew a packed room.
Reid, who is the highest ranking elected Mormon in the country, said it was by "coincidence" that the hearing fell on July 24, Pioneer Day in Utah and a Mormon holiday of when church members entered the Salt Lake Valley. But he said it was appropriate.
"We do honor to our pioneer ancestors by condemning those who have wrongfully cloaked themselves in the trapping of religion to obscure their true criminal purposes," Reid said.