Vancouver -- The United States has appointed a federal prosecutor to work with state and local authorities on bringing an end to lawlessness in polygamous communities, an investigation that may extend to finding a way to stop the so-called polygamy underground railway across the Canada-U.S. border.
A senior prosecutor in the deputy attorney-general's office has been assigned to carry out the review in consultation with the attorneys-general of Nevada, Arizona and Utah, Harry Reid, Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate, stated in correspondence released yesterday.
Mr. Reid described the problem as an "epidemic of lawlessness in polygamous communities."
He found out about the federal initiative after contacting U.S. Attorney-General Michael Mukasey to urge a thorough review of how the U.S. government could help state and local authorities "tackle this complex problem."
Arizona Attorney-General Terry Goddard said yesterday that he welcomes the review, which he and others had sought three or four years ago. "The problem traditionally has been that the laws have not been enforced in these remote communities in Utah, Arizona and Nevada," he said in an interview.
"My fundamental guiding star is, there is nothing special here. They need to follow the law like anyone else and it is up to us as prosecutors to make sure it happens," Mr. Goddard said shortly before co-chairing a town hall meeting on polygamy in St. George, Utah.
B.C. Liberal MLA Bill Bennett, who represents the East Kootenay riding, said the Canadian government should be working with the United States on the cross-border issues. "What we need is a co-operative effort by the province, various states and the two federal governments, who have primary responsibility for immigration and customs," he said from Victoria.
"Certainly from what I've been told, there is no doubt young women have been sent to Bountiful [B.C.] to marry older men and young women have been taken from Bountiful to marry older men [in the polygamous communities] in Colorado City, Arizona and in Utah."
The U.S. federal review was announced a month after a raid on a 1,700-acre compound in Texas of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a polygamous religious sect.
Authorities found more than 20 girls that they believed were under the age of 18 and pregnant or who already had children. Child protection officials said they found evidence of sexual abuse and a pervasive pattern of grooming young girls for underage sex. They apprehended 463 children at the compound, including at least one Canadian girl, and placed them in foster care.
Former members of the polygamous sect have said young women were regularly sent across the Canada-U.S. border, in both directions, to marry older men. Bountiful is a FLDS community of about 1,000 in the Creston, B.C., area.
Mr. Reid said he believes the U.S. federal government should have done more years ago, when the states of Utah and Arizona had asked for federal co-operation in investigating "the systemic lawlessness" in polygamous communities. State authorities had sought federal action on violations of federal civil rights laws by Colorado City marshals and on Internal Revenue Code violations.
"This is precisely the kind of help I believe the federal government should provide, but it has not yet done so. Your requests for federal funding to assist victims of domestic violence also merit prompt review," Mr. Reid said.
In a statement issued from his office late yesterday, he said that human trafficking across the Canada-U.S. border was clearly a federal matter. "[He] would expect the Justice Department to review any allegations like that," Mr. Reid's spokesman, Jon Summers, said.
Arizona's Mr. Goddard said he recently spoke briefly to B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal about the U.S. response to the polygamous communities. Mr. Oppal seemed "very interested," he said.
In Arizona, authorities have tried to ensure that the law applies without stigmatizing the FLDS communities for their religion, Mr. Goddard said.
Authorities there have gone after allegations of child abuse in the communities and after police who took orders from the church. The state government has taken over the school district because it was run by the FLDS hierarchy and not for the benefit of the children, he said.
It is up to the federal government to look into tax evasion, possible welfare fraud and civil rights violations, especially those committed against young men thrown out of the community, Mr. Goddard said.
The actions in Arizona are in marked contrast to activities in Canada. Polygamy is illegal in Canada, but no one at Bountiful has ever faced charges for bigamy.
Mr. Oppal is currently deliberating whether to refer a question on the constitutionality of Canada's polygamy law to the B.C. Court of Appeal. He told reporters this week he expected to announce his decision within two or three weeks.