WASHINGTON — Congress seemed to step back into the 1880s Thursday as polygamist women in pioneer dresses listened in a packed hearing room as the Senate's top leader urged stepped-up law enforcement against criminal syndicates he says lead polygamous groups.

Unlike the anti-polygamy crusades of the 1800s, the leader this time is a Mormon: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. And he applauded the fact that the hearing on crimes by polygamists came before the Judiciary Committee on Pioneer Day.

"We do honor our pioneer ancestors by condemning those who have wrongfully cloaked themselves in the trappings of religion to obscure their true criminal purposes," Reid said, as the national media watched and national cable TV carried comments live.

"I am here to tell you that polygamist communities in the United States are a form of organized crime," he said. "The most obvious crime being committed in these communities is bigamy, child abuse — teen and pre-teen girls are forced to marry older men and bear their children."

Reid said other crimes they commit include "welfare fraud, tax evasion, massive corruption and strong-arm tactics to maintain what they think are the status quo. These crimes are systematic, sophisticated and are frequently carried out across state lines."

Reid said such groups have spread across North America. "States need help. They are on the front line of this fight, and it is a fight," he said. He filed a bill on Wednesday to create a federal task force to coordinate investigation of crimes committed by polygamous groups — an idea Reid said he began suggesting in 2006.

It also would make funds available to help states and victims. "Because these organizations routinely threaten, harass and tamper with victims planning on testifying against them, it is necessary to provide targeted funds so that law enforcement can protect them and, if necessary, shield their identity," Reid said.

Polygamous groups denounced Reid's actions — but did so outside of the hearing, because they were not invited to testify. Some federal officials also said the coordinated effort that Reid wants already is occurring. But other officials — and some former polygamists — seconded Reid's call for better federal-state coordination.

Jim Bradshaw, a Utah attorney who is spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in the hall outside the hearing, "It is disturbing that they are profiling a group of people for their religious beliefs. If they did this to any other group, there would be outrage."

He added, "We are very disturbed that the Senate Judiciary Committee conducts a purported fact-finding hearing with an obviously choreographed list of witnesses that are one-sided, and that they refused to allow the FLDS to be heard."

Meanwhile, Mary Batchelor, executive director of Principle Voices, an advocacy organization for polygamous families, said, "We are frustrated with Senator Reid. We feel he is not well informed."

She added that he should distinguish better between groups where abuse has occurred, and those where it has not.

"Reid's bill and his anti-polygamy efforts are not focused on crimes but on a family arrangement," said an information packet that Batchelor was distributing in the hallway outside the packed hearing room.

Brett Tolman, U.S. attorney for Utah, testified that Reid's proposed task force is likely not needed, and coordination already occurs. "Utah has a proud history of a coordinated state and federal response."

About Reid's proposal, Tolman said, "I believe that there is already substantial communication and coordination among federal, state and local offices; indeed, just as much as there would be were a formal task force in place."

Tolman said Reid's proposed task force "may be too blunt an instrument to accomplish an effective investigation, and subtler and more covert methods may be more profitably employed."

Under questioning by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Tolman said some formal task forces were formed a few years ago, but they did not work well and could not penetrate the FLDS. He said lower-key efforts have led to more inside information, and communication among law enforcement is better now than it was with task forces.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard testified that efforts by him and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff have been closely coordinated and worked to build trust among polygamous groups and provide a safety net for victims. He said that led to the conviction of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs for rape as an accomplice.

He said their efforts have provided legal assistance, housing, counseling, education and other support to 1,200 victims in the polygamous enclaves of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. "Child abuse reports have also increased dramatically in the region as a result of our outreach," he said.

Goddard, however, favored greater cooperation with federal agencies and said that had sometimes been slow in coming.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott praised the idea of greater federal involvement, which he said should help minimize "the possibility that persons will simply move their operations to another location" when one state begins prosecution. He said the FLDS move to Texas came as pressure had increased in Utah and Arizona.

Also, he said greater federal involvement would help ensure that groups such as the FLDS do not seize civil control in small, remote areas — to ensure local officials look the other way when crimes occur — which he said they may have done for decades in Hildale and Colorado City.

Some former members of the FLDS Church testified that leaders of the group control all aspects of its members lives, and members have no protection of law.

Carolyn Jessop was married to Merril Jessop, a lieutenant of Warren Jeffs and leader of the FLDS ranch in Eldorado, Texas. She wrote a book about her escape with eight children from the FLDS in Colorado City. "I was desperate because I could no longer protect my children from the increasing abuse within the FLDS as the result of bizarre pronouncements by the prophet, Warren Jeffs."

She said officials and police at Colorado City where she lived were all FLDS, and they did what FLDS leaders desired. Husbands would not allow women to have licensed and insured cars, so local police could arrest them on those charges if they tried to flee.

"The night I escaped with my children I knew I couldn't go to the local police for protection, because they would be the first men that Merril would contact to hunt me down. They could use the fact that my car was not licensed as a legal reason to arrest me," she said.

"I stand here today to ask the U.S. government to provide federal oversight into these closed communities, so that members, such as myself, seeking refuge know were they can find a safe haven should they choose to leave," she said.

Jessop added, "My rights to my own life and liberty were taken from me when I was forced to marry Merril Jessop. I had never known what it meant to be safe until my third day of freedom when we went into hiding. It took me a year before I could think of myself as a person and not an object."

Dan Fisher, who was an FLDS member and once was married to three women assigned to him by FLDS leaders, said, "Their prophet is as their God. Whatever he says takes precedent over any previous scripture of any previous century. It can also take precedent over the laws of the United States."

He said his extended family once received a 4:30 a.m. call ordering it to a meeting with FLDS leaders. At it, his father's three wives were "released" (divorced by mandate) from his father, who had not been invited to the meeting. Warren Jeffs told the group Fisher's father was not worthy of his wives and did not have time to repent — and their father had no hope for salvation.

The wives were assigned to other men, who claimed all their children as their own. Fisher said his father died shortly thereafter, probably in a suicide. He said such power over lives can be misused with tragic consequences.

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