Texans' tab for YFZ ranch roundup tops $14 million

Fort Worth Star-Telegram/June 14, 2008

Austin - The state's tab for operations associated with the roundup of more than 460 youngsters from a polygamist sect's ranch in West Texas has already topped $14 million, and a chunk of invoices for such expenses as overtime, travel and professional services has yet to be submitted, newly released records show.

A Star-Telegram review of more than 400 pages of invoices, travel receipts and state agency e-mails and spreadsheets obtained this week under state open-records laws shows that officials expect to pay more than $7 million for litigation stemming from the early April raid on the Yearning For Zion Ranch near Eldorado owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The Texas attorney general's office is also being billed $110,000 for expenses related to DNA testing of adults and children from the sect in an effort to positively identify the parents of every child who was taken into custody.

The costs add up

The raid on the YFZ Ranch sparked a legal skirmish that first resulted in a state district judge in San Angelo awarding Child Protective Services temporary custody of the children and ultimately led to a Texas Supreme Court ruling that returned the children to their parents.

But the raid also spurred a hastily arranged plan to provide for first the mass-shelter care of the children at centers in San Angelo and then care at numerous foster-care facilities across the state. The roundup also forced a small army of CPS caseworkers, law enforcement officers, private volunteers and legal teams into action in Tom Green and Schleicher counties and in Austin.

Even though the state's highest court ruled that officials had overstepped their authority in the mass roundup, Texas officials have maintained that they had uncovered clear evidence that the youngsters in the compound, where teenage girls marry much older men, were in imminent danger of abuse. And a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, who has defended the state's action, insisted that the cost to taxpayers is justified.

"Any action taken to protect children is never misguided," said Krista Piferrer, Perry's deputy press secretary.

Squeezing dollars

The documents released through the attorney general's and governor's offices show that state employees sent to Eldorado and San Angelo stayed mostly in moderately priced hotels such as La Quinta and Rodeway Inn. In many cases, employees sent e-mails to supervisors seeking permission before extending their stays or traveling between San Angelo and Eldorado.

Employees who wished to rent automobiles submitted forms showing that the rentals would cost the state less than if they drove their own vehicles and were reimbursed for the mileage.

Litigation and facilities

The costs associated with legal work involving the custody of the children and potential criminal charges has accounted for most of the state spending to date, the documents show. The state expects to pay nearly $4.5 million in attorney's fees, including for lawyers representing the state's interests and for lawyers appointed by the courts to assure that the children's rights were safeguarded.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars are earmarked for expenses such as expert witnesses, legal support personnel, office supplies and visiting judges.

Fees for equipment, as well as overtime pay and travel expenses, mostly for employees of the state's protective services agencies, appear to be the second-largest share of the outlays to date. The state will pay about $2.4 million for renting buses and for the facilities that housed the children and some of the mothers early in the operation. State workers racked up about $1.7 million in overtime and $1.2 million for travel and other expenses during the first month of operations.

The documents also show that the raid cost the Texas Department of Public Safety nearly $1.3 million, including $410,000 for officers' overtime pay and almost $82,000 for travel.

Some bills outstanding

The documents do not include bills submitted by several private charity providers that helped the state with the operations, and it was unclear late Friday how many invoices from state employees have yet to be submitted.

"I think the [newly released documents] captured the vast majority of the overtime and the travel," said Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman for the state's Health and Human Services Commission. "We're still working with the foster-care facilities to look at any costs not covered by the daily rates."

The documents did include e-mails circulated among some of Perry's top staffers in response to a May 25 Star-Telegram report on complaints about delayed reimbursements to some state protective services employees. The e-mails included "travel voucher talking points" explaining the process for ensuring prompt reimbursement and expressing empathy for employees who must pay their ever-rising gasoline bills upfront.

"We have been hearing a few anecdotal stories from staff that they are feeling the gas price pinch and that their reimbursements are taking too long," the talking points say before explaining how the reimbursement policy works.

Following the money

Here's a breakdown on some of the state's costs associated with removing children from the YFZ Ranch:

Lawyers' fees: $4.5 million

Travel for lawyers and staff: $400,000

Legal staff: $583,000

Overtime for social services workers: $1.7 million

Overtime for public safety officers: $410,000

Travel for social services workers: $1.2 million

Travel for public safety officers: $82,000

Facilities, vehicles and equipment rental: $2.4 million

Sources: Various state agencies

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