Lawmakers Want Hearing on Ties Between Sect, Defense Contracts

Washington Post/April 29, 2008

The Defense Department has contracted with three companies that are closely tied to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and some lawmakers want to know if money from those deals supported the sect, whose ranch was raided this month after allegations of child abuse.

Pentagon officials said the Air Force and the Defense Logistics Agency bought $1.7 million worth of airplane parts from three companies with close ties to the sect. Some officials are raising questions about statements by an employee of one of the companies that much of that money went directly to the FLDS church and its polygamist leader, Warren Jeffs.

Jeffs was convicted of rape last year for arranging an underage marriage. On April 3, authorities raided the Yearning for Zion Ranch outside El Dorado, Tex., run by the polygamist group after a tip that young girls there had been sexually abused. More than 400 children are in state custody, as authorities try to sort out what happened at the ranch.

The Pentagon said airplane parts were bought between 1998 and 2007 from Utah Tool & Die Inc., Western Precision Inc. and NewEra Manufacturing Inc., all companies with ties to the church. One of the contracts with NewEra Manufacturing in Las Vegas is still open -- with a May delivery date scheduled for 800 Navy bearing hubs at a cost of $40,920, according to the Defense Department.

Rep. Kay Granger (Tex.), vice chairman of the Republican Conference, has asked the House Armed Services Committee to hold investigative hearings, fearing that federal tax dollars may have been used to fund the sect's activities.

"While religious affiliation should certainly not be a determining factor, DoD has a responsibility to closely scrutinize any company under consideration before contracts are awarded," Granger wrote in an April 16 letter to the committee. "I am concerned that such scrutiny did not occur in this case, and that funds from this company may have been used to support the FLDS church's activities."

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported this month that NewEra's president and chief executive is an FLDS leader and close associate of Jeffs's and that NewEra is the latest iteration of Western Precision, which was located in Utah.

John Nielsen, who worked for Western Precision, said in an affidavit in a 2005 lawsuit that he and other FLDS sect members worked at the company for extremely low wages. He said tens of thousands of dollars of the company's earnings were sent each month to the church, according to the Star-Telegram.

NewEra officials declined to speak about the church sect. They said that there was nothing improper about the contracts and that the federal government had not been cheated.

"Our contracts are based on competition in the business world, and the business goes and pays its costs and its labor and works hard for the money," said Steve Barlow, NewEra's human resources manager, who said he could not comment on the church. "If they choose us, it's because we make good parts, on time."

Defense officials said that there was nothing wrong with awarding the relatively small defense contracts and that the department does not consider religious affiliation or marital status in selecting vendors.

Although illegal activity could lead to the termination of a contract, defense officials have found no criminal allegations against anyone affiliated with the companies and do not monitor a company's charitable donations.

"We are the world's largest and most complex organization, with a budget of nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars," said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon's press secretary. "It is extraordinarily difficult to monitor the behavior of every employee of every company with which we do business, but when a vendor is proven guilty of a criminal activity, we take prompt and appropriate action."

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