Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took a rare opportunity Thursday to switch roles and testify before his colleagues to blast polygamy, a still-used practice among some who practice the Mormon faith.
Reid, D-Nev., is Mormon himself and noted that while his church had cast off its polygamist past, some members continue the practice of men maintaining multiple wives.
"I felt that this was essential that I be here. The lawless conduct of polygamist communities in the United States deserves national attention and federal action," Reid told his colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "This hearing is an important milestone in the ongoing effort to curtail their pervasive criminal behavior."
Reid said he got to see how organized crime worked when he headed the Nevada gaming commission, and there are similarties between those mobsters and modern polygamists.
Reid said polygamists communities "are a form of organized crime. ... I'm not saying they're the same thing as the crime syndicates that were in las vegas, but they engage in an ongoing pattern of serious crime that we ignore at our peril."
Beyond bigamy and child abuse — including the forced marriage of teens and pre-teens to older men — Reid said they commit welfare fraud, tax evasion and other "strong-arm tactics," such as witness intimidation.
"These crimes are systematic, sophisticated and are frequently carried out across state lines," Reid said, adding: "These lawless organizations must be stopped.
The hearing also was going to focus on the federal and state law enforcement efforts that are ongoing to root out polygamy. The issue has gained national attention following high profile prosecutions of Fundamental Church of Latter Day Saints leader Warren Jeffs, and the raid on an FLDS compound near El Dorado, Texas, an ongoing court battle that included the placement of the children living on the compound in state foster care.
Gregory Brower, the Arizona U.S. Attorney, said there is no federal law against polygamy, but the federal government has a number of traditional resources at its disposal to investigate polygamists, including FBI, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, IRS, and other inspectors. However, polygamy is illegal in all 50 states under state laws.
Utah U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman, however, warned against using too blunt an instrument against polygamists, who are reclusive and cloistered. Saying rather than forming a task force to crack the surface of polygamist organizations, "subtle, more covert methods may be properly employed."