For-prophet organization

Houston Chronicle/May 2, 2008

They've been accused of forcing underage girls to "marry" middle-age men.

They've been accused of reassigning wives and children from one man to another as though they were chattel.

There have even been accusations of older boys molesting younger boys.

Numerous readers, some of whom apparently heard repeated assertions on CNN in the past weeks, want to know why we're not also reporting another scandal involving West Texas members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.

The scandal is that they were also collecting massive amounts of welfare payments, since all but their first wives were, for legal purposes, unwed mothers.

Here is the reason we haven't reported it: It isn't true.

How we know that

Stephanie Goodman, spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said privacy laws prevent her from disclosing who gets welfare payments. But she's quite confident none of the women at the compound in Schleicher County receive welfare.

How can she be sure?

Because not one of the nearly 3,000 souls who lives in Schleicher County receives welfare, more formally known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Some 203 people do get food stamps. But that's down from 212 in 2003, before the polygamist group moved into the county.

The number of children enrolled in the Children's Health Insurance Program has also declined, from 111 in 2003 to 63 currently.

Not moral superiority

The number of Medicaid recipients has risen in that period, from 216 to 283. It is unclear if any of the increase comes from the polygamists. They have a licensed doctor living at the compound, but he is not registered to receive Medicaid patients.

I am not suggesting the group's abstinence from welfare claims is a sign of moral superiority.

Residents of the Yearning for Zion Ranch relocated from Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.

Those two towns, whose population has ranged from an estimated 6,500 to 10,000, were established in the desert north of the Grand Canyon by the cult and basically function as one. They are divided only by a state line.

According to Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah attorney general's office, cult members there have been aggressive in their access to the welfare rolls.

He doesn't know of any recent tallies, but in 2002, he said, "66 percent of Hildale residents received federal assistance, and 78 percent of Colorado City received food stamps." They even had a term for it, according to former cult members.

"They called it 'bleeding the beast,' " Murphy said, and most of it was legal.

Welfare wasn't their only way of bleeding the beast, according to authorities. In 2000, cult leaders ordered members to leave the public schools in Colorado City, causing a 75 percent decline in enrollment, 1,400 to 350. But members of the cult continued to control the elected school board and the school district's administration.

In 2005, a new state law allowed state authorities to take over the district.

By that time the district owned its own $220,000 airplane, the only school district in the state with a plane. A cult member was hired as a pilot.

The district had four times as many administrators as districts of comparable size, with a total of 100 employees for the 350 K-12 students, according to various news reports. The district was funded with millions in state and federal dollars.

Cult members who moved to Texas neither filed for welfare nor tried to take over the local school district. They home-schooled their children.

West Texans are a live-and-let-live sort. This benefited the newcomers, as long as they stayed to themselves. Had the polygamists filed for welfare in large numbers or tried to take over the school board, the reaction would not have been benign neglect.

The cult doesn't need the welfare dollars. Its leadership controls about 10 good-size companies, a large farm and uncounted construction firms and other small businesses, said Bruce Wisan, a Salt Lake City accountant. A court appointed Wisan to oversee a real estate trust set up by cult leaders, worth between $10 million and $15 million.

Wisan said there is evidence that the businesses, some of which have millions in government contracts, employ cult members and underpay them. The businesses contribute generously to the church, he said.

"The workers are told they're working for the prophet," he said, referring to Warren Jeffs, the cult's leader, who is serving a prison sentence on two counts of rape as accomplice for arranging the "marriage" of older members to underage girls.

In addition, cult members are expected to pay 10 percent of their income to the church, plus $1,000 a month.

That's a for-prophet organization that didn't need to "bleed the beast."

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