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Feds getting involved in polygamy cases

Harry Reid
Harry Reid

WASHINGTON — A Justice Department prosecutor has been assigned to review how the federal government can help state and local law enforcement with polygamy cases, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard in a letter this week.

But members of Utah's plural communities are expressing concerns about the scale and scope of the investigations.

"I'm a little bit concerned," said Christine, a member of the Bluffdale-based Apostolic United Brethren group. "I think it's a bit much."

Mary Batchelor, the director of the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices, said she was concerned that the federal government might circumvent local law enforcement, who she said had a great deal of experience with the polygamous culture.

"I don't think our communities should be specially targeted for investigation any more than any other community should be targeted," she said Thursday.

The attorneys general of Utah and Arizona have been pushing for federal assistance on investigations into tax fraud, child labor violations, child-bride trafficking and organized crime — specifically in the FLDS Church, along with its leader, Warren Jeffs. Goddard said they would simply discuss their suspicions about crimes being committed.

"Suspicions don't constitute probable cause," he told the Deseret News. "But I've always believed in the 'where there's smoke there may be fire' theory of law enforcement."

Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and Shurtleff each have tried in the past to get the federal government involved in fighting polygamy with little success. But the recent raid on a Fundamentalist LDS Church compound in Eldorado, Texas — and a testy exchange between the two politicians last week — have brought the idea of federal involvement back up.

Earlier last month, Reid wrote U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey that federal involvement is "vital" in combating polygamy. Reid said he initially had asked former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to look at how the federal government could play a role, but nothing came of it.

Then, on a Utah radio show, Reid pegged the need for more federal involvement on what he said was the fact Utah and Arizona are not doing anything to fight it. Reid said he was "embarrassed" for the two states and their lack of progress on polygamy cases, while praising the raid on the FLDS compound in Texas.

"The state of Utah is doing nothing," Reid said on the University of Utah's KUER radio.

Reid's remarks angered Shurtleff, as he outlined what the state has done to combat polygamy. Reid, who is also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called Shurtleff shortly after to bury the hatchet. Shurtleff and Goddard also sent Reid a four-page letter outlining their states' action on fighting polygamy.

"Your comments to Utah media about state law enforcement efforts with regard to women and children living in Colorado City (Ariz.) and Hildale (Utah) were apparently made without full information about the significant progress made in our two states over the past several years," the attorneys general wrote, providing a detailed list of efforts the states have made, including putting FLDS leader Warren Jeffs in jail.

In Monday's letter, Reid said he was "pleased to learn more about the good work you have both undertaken to reduce child abuse, domestic violence and other serious violations of law within these communities." He said, too, though, that the letter confirmed "that federal assistance would strengthen your hand in this struggle."

Reid wrote that a "senior career prosecutor in the Deputy Attorney General's Office has been tasked to carry out this review" with Shurtleff, Goddard and Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto.

"Working together, I believe federal and state authorities can do even more to address the epidemic of lawlessness in polygamous communities throughout the southwestern United States," Reid wrote.

Shurtleff called it a good first step but said they would need to involve other federal agencies, like the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor, to look into possible financial crimes and child labor violations.

"With a task force in place, it would be very helpful," he told the Deseret News.

The U.S. attorney for Nevada will oversee the efforts, and Shurtleff said he expects they would have their first meeting next week.

U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman told the Deseret News last week that his office has conducted inquiries into the FLDS Church and its leader, Warren Jeffs, but was unable to develop concrete evidence or secure witnesses for any charges. He also said a federal task force was unnecessary but that he would work with state authorities.