Friday, July 25, 2008 | 7:18 a.m.
There seems to be a little bit of Eliot Ness lurking in Harry Reid.
When Ness went after crime boss Al Capone, he employed a strategy that was long on theatrical speak-easy raids, but ultimately busted the mob leader on a technicality.
Reid seems to be taking a similar approach as he attempts to orchestrate the largest federal crackdown in generations on crimes alleged in polygamous communities.
The senate majority leader was the star witness Thursday at a congressional hearing that focused greatly on his legislation to create a federal task force to coordinate states’ efforts to go after polygamy-related crimes.
Drawing on his experience as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission investigating organized crime in Las Vegas (he inspired a character in the movie “Casino”), Reid paralleled the allegations of extortion, embezzlement, fraud and witness tampering common to both.
“I am not saying they are the same thing as the crime syndicates that used to run Las Vegas,” Reid testified about the polygamous communities. “But they engage in an ongoing pattern of serious crimes that we ignore to our peril.”
“They are,” he told the Senate panel, “a form of organized crime.”
Forget multiple wives — that’s too hard to prove in this day of alternative marital arrangements. Reid wants to nail polygamists for tax evasion or wire fraud.
The senator is a convert to Mormonism, and although his religion dropped polygamy in 1890, the breakaway Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues the practice — though the group now bans underage girls from marriage, an attorney said.
This year, authorities conducted a high-profile raid of a fundamentalist compound in Texas, forcibly removing hundreds of children alleged to be in danger of abuse.
Thursday’s hearing came on Pioneer Day, celebrated by Mormons worldwide as the day the religious pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in Utah in 1847. Federal lawmakers began to worry about polygamy a short time later.
Although Northerners 150 years ago were aghast at Utah’s treatment of women, Southerners fought polygamy legislation, worried it would pave the way for anti-slavery laws. But during the Civil War, a coalition passed legislation outlawing polygamy in the federal territories.
Utah eventually banned the practice and became a state.
Sarah Barringer Gordon, a professor of law and history at the University of Pennsylvania, sees similarities between the time Congress first addressed polygamy and now. Reid, like those before him, clearly believes “the best way to smoke people out is to make a lot of noise and light a lot of fires.”
But some prosecutors of polygamy-related crimes prefer a less showy approach.
The U.S. attorney in Utah, Brett Tolman, said a federal task force “may be too blunt an instrument.” Tell the bad guys you’re coming, and potential leads dry up.
Already, Tolman said, he’s seen setbacks in his investigations as potential witnesses have withdrawn since Reid announced his desire for a task force months ago.
Nevada’s U.S. attorney, Greg Brower, agrees in part. Plus, his office’s top priority is national security. Polygamous families are believed to be living in southeastern Nevada.
Outside the hearing room Thursday, those from the FLDS community said Reid’s proposal amounts to religious persecution. One called it genocide.
“You don’t demonize an entire group of people based on accusations of the group or stereotypes,” said the group’s attorney, Jim Bradshaw of Salt Lake City. “To come in here and say ‘this group of people commits crime, and this group of people is guilty of some offense,’ that’s wrong, that’s un-American.”
Some suggest the Mormon church would like to distance itself from the bad press of the fundamentalists. Willie Jessop, a spokesman for the Texas FLDS compound, believes Reid is trying to win favor in Nevada’s Mormon community by taking a hard line against the fundamentalists as he prepares for reelection in 2010. “This is his way of still trying to maintain their votes,” he said.
Reid’s office said the senator is tackling the issue because he believes “it’s right.”
Gordon, the professor, sees a bigger question arising if Congress opens the door to scrutinizing those with multiple wives: Should the federal government be in the business of defining marriage, as social conservatives have tried do with bills opposing gay rights, or should that remain a states issue?
“One of the things that strikes me as dangerous is, at this moment, there is an enormous debate about marriage, and it’s not about polygamy,” she said. “We’ve kept the culture war down to a dull roar ... I get concerned when you start putting a klieg light on the definition of marriage on a federal level.”