Allegations that members of a southern Utah polygamous sect are guilty of widespread welfare fraud were raised repeatedly this summer during a U.S. Senate judiciary committee hearing.
They surfaced frequently, too, in messages sent to Texas Gov. Rick Perry after an April raid on the Eldorado ranch occupied by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
"Please pull the plug on the freebies for the cult. Why are the taxpayers of your state paying for this illegal group?" wrote a Michigan couple on April 17.
But welfare data from Utah, Arizona and Texas do not support the claims.
None of the 600 or so residents of the Yearning For Zion Ranch received any form of welfare, according to state officials. Cash assistance is almost nonexistent in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
While many families living in the sect's traditional home base receive food and medical help, virtually all those families qualify under program guidelines, authorities say. There has been a single fraud case prosecuted in the past decade.
Yet six speakers at a July 24 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing - from Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid to former plural wife Carolyn Jessop - said fraud and misuse of welfare funds is a primary reason the federal government should be more involved in investigating the sect.
Reid said the FLDS have a "sophisticated, wealthy and vast criminal organization" that includes "welfare fraud."
Jessop told the committee the FLDS engage in a "religious doctrine" known as 'bleeding the beast,' " which she explained included applying for "every possible type of government of assistance that is available." Author Stephen Singular, who has written a book about the FLDS, told the committee that Colorado City residents received "eight times the welfare assistance of comparably sized towns in the area."
But data from Utah and Arizona officials contradict that claim.
A majority of residents of the adjoining towns, which have a combined population of 6,789, belong to the sect; of the towns' 800 households, about 120 are occupied by former or nonmembers of the sect, according to Hildale Mayor David Zitting.
State data do not identify whether assistance recipients are FLDS, and information provided by Arizona uses a zip code that also includes the nearby polygamous community of Centennial Park, which is not affiliated with the FLDS.
Here's what the data show:
In Hildale, just one family received cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program between February and August of 2008, the latest information available. Officials say that is a typical tally.
In Colorado City and Centennial Park, which has at least 1,500 residents, there were two to five cash assistance cases between March 2007 and March 2008, a count that also varies little from year to year.
The most widely used poverty-related programs are food stamps and Medicaid, particularly for pregnant women and newborn care. With Colorado City and Centennial Park combined, 126 children were enrolled in KidsCare, a low-cost health insurance program.
Another 3,416 people received some form of Medicaid coverage, said Christine Goldberg, spokeswoman for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.
On the Utah side, the most widely used Medicaid program covers newborns. Through August of this year, there was an average of 131 such cases of ongoing coverage in Hildale. In August, other Medicaid programs and the state Children's Health Insurance Program had 324 open cases in the city.
The food stamp program bases allotments on household size, income and available financial resources. Nationwide, half of food stamp recipients are children and 61 percent live in single-parent families, according to the USDA's Food & Nutrition Service.
In Hildale there were an average of 75 cases a month in 2007-08, while Colorado City averaged 207 food stamp cases between March 2007 and March 2008.
A comparison of Colorado City's zip code data with two other Arizona communities with similar populations found household case counts to be about the same, according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security.
But family sizes skew individual counts.
"The number of recipients in Colorado City tends to be higher because families in that area tend to be larger," said Liz Barker Alvarez, department spokeswoman.
Based on number of recipients, 44 percent of Colorado City residents received food stamps - not 78 percent, as a guide put together by the Utah Attorney General's Office states. Arizona provided $1.5 million in food stamps to area residents in 2006 and 2007.
Utah did not provide information about recipient numbers. But the average monthly food stamp benefit in Hildale is $829, compared with the typical monthly grant of $250 in Washington County.
As for fraud, Arizona has not prosecuted anyone in Colorado City for misuse of federal or state aid programs, according to a spokeswoman for Attorney General Terry Goddard.
In Utah, the Washington County Attorney's Office charged Jared L. Barlow and his wife Linda with fraud in 2006. Prosecutors alleged they failed to report assets and self-employment income on their application for food stamps and medical assistance.
Jared Barlow pled guilty in August to a second-degree felony while Linda Barlow pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge. They were ordered to repay $37,319 to the Utah Department of Workforce Services and complete community service.
"This is the only [prosecution] I am aware of in the past three years," said Jerry D. Jaeger, deputy attorney with the Washington County Attorney's Office.
Curt Stewart, spokesman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said public perception is that welfare fraud is rampant in the polygamous community. But, he added, "We are not finding that."
Ezra Draper, a former FLDS member who lives in the community, called the claim the sect has a doctrine requiring use of government aid "comical."
"'Bleeding the beast' came from outside [the sect]," he said. "It's not their phraseology."
FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said the term has only been used by "anti-FLDS crusaders."
"It has always been a fundamental teaching that people should be as self-sufficient as they can in providing for themselves with their own resources," Jessop said. "Outside that, it is an individual choice based on individual circumstances."
But Paul Murphy, spokesman for Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, said that while there may not be "outright fraud" by the polygamous community, there is "a resentment that taxpayers are being used to support this lifestyle.
"If you are going to have three wives and 15 children, you need to figure out a way to support three wives and 15 children," he said.
The unique demographics of the polygamous towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., skew comparisons to other communities.
For example, the median age in Hildale is 13.1; about 22 percent of the population is age 5 or younger. The median age for Utah is 28.4 and only 9.7 percent of the population is age 5 or younger.
The average household and family sizes in the twin towns also are remarkably different from the rest of the country. The average household size is 8.17 in Hildale and 7.51 in Colorado City, compared with 2.59 in the U.S., 2.72 in Arizona and 3.08 in Utah.
The large family sizes mean more community households may meet poverty guidelines that are the basis of Medicaid and food stamp programs.