Current data does not support ‘bleeding the beast’ claim
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.
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.
Bleeding the beast
The following is an excerpt from a Larry King interview with Brent Jeffs, nephew to jailed FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, and former FLDS wives Carolyn Jessop and Pennie Petersen
CALLER: Hi, Larry. I firmly believe you can worship what you want but it’s my understanding that the American taxpayers are paying for this lifestyle. My question is I’ve heard that polygamists encourage their wives to abuse the welfare system. I just want to know if this is true and if it’s not, how you support a 40 or 75 member family or how you generate income.
KING: Carolyn, you want to take it first? –
JESSOP: Yes. I would like to respond to that question. When I was a child growing up in the community, few people did welfare, we worked hard and took care of our families. From what I understand there are many polygamist families that do not use welfare and are not involved in welfare fraud. The welfare fraud came into place with FLDS community several years after Jeffs took the leadership role in the community and he began encouraging large families to get on the system. Before that we found ways to survive without it.
KING: I’m sorry. Finish.
JESSOP: I was going to say, when Warren took over, the welfare fraud became extreme.
KING: Brent, do you agree?
JEFFS: I agree with what she said to a degree. When Warren took over, he tried in every way to bleed the system.
KING: John, you agree with that, too?
QUINONES: Yes. It’s called bleeding the beast. The American federal system. When we were there, we found many folks who were on not only welfare and food stamps but also property taxes not being paid and lawsuits filed on that. They’re finally cracking down, the authorities, because dozens and dozens of folks who live in that community aren’t paying property taxes.