26 Oct 2010

Prospects promising for bill spawned by YFZ raid

Go San Angelo - April 16, 2009

by Paul A. Anthony

AUSTIN - The House Human Services Committee left pending a bill written in response to last year's raid on the YFZ Ranch.

The committee could vote on it as early as next week after taking testimony on it and other raid-related issues for more than six hours Tuesday, a day that turned fractious as legislators twice did battle with a spokesman for the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

"My concern," Willie Jessop said during his second time testifying before the committee, "is that this bill is about religion."

Jessop, testifying under oath publicly for the first time since his public ascendance as the most visible face of the FLDS, dodged questions during his first stint in front of the committee about whether underage marriages were condoned on the ranch.

The second time was no less confrontational, as Jessop and state Rep. Drew Darby, the San Angelo Republican who helped write the bill, clashed over the legislation's intent and scope.

The bill would increase penalties for failing to report child abuse and failing to properly educate a child, as well as extending the statute of limitations for bigamy prosecutions.

It also clarifies state law to make it clearer that Child Protective Services and the courts can determine no reasonable efforts can be made to keep the children in a home during an investigation and would make it easier for CPS to remove parents from a situation instead of children.

Legislators multiple times pointed out the bill does not add any crimes to the state code but merely strengthens the penalties and makes changes to laws existing already against illegal behavior - including bigamy, a central FLDS tenet.

"There's not an aspect of this bill that's specific to a particular religion or subset of religion," committee Chairman Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, told Jessop.

Darby concurred, saying the bill is aimed at pedophiles of any religion.

Jessop disagreed, noting the changes to the bigamy laws.

"Bigamy, is that really about pedophiles?" he said.

"Maybe I should have added polygamous pedophiles," Darby responded.

"What about monogamous ones?" Jessop shot back. "Can we address that, sir?"

"Hopefully, we already have," Darby replied.

Darby and Rose, in particular, questioned why Jessop and other FLDS members would feel targeted by a bill that does not add any crimes.

"This bill is a broad-based bill," Darby said. "If you feel targeted by that, then maybe you have a reason to be concerned. ... Pedophilia is not about religion. Are you saying it is?"

At one point, Rose said to Jessop, tongue possibly in cheek: "Which of these crimes ... are you committing that you are concerned about?"

Both legislators said they would not support the bill - Darby saying he "would pull it down myself" - if they thought it targeted a specific religion.

Jessop wasn't the only person under fire during the lengthy hearing, which started at 2 p.m. and ended after 8 p.m.

The Third Court of Appeals ruled in May that 51st District Judge Barbara Walther abused her discretion in ordering the removal of all 439 children from the ranch, and that CPS had not presented enough evidence to show that any children were in imminent danger . It also found itself in the crosshairs, blasted by retired District Judge Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Priorities, as having written "a very poor opinion."

"All the Supreme Court said (in declining to overturn the appellate court's ruling) is that the Court of Appeals did not abuse its discretion," McCown said. "I don't think any court is going to put much weight on that Court of Appeals opinion. Its reasoning was very poor."

McCown objected to changes written by Darby and bill sponsor Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, that appear to be in response to the appellate court's ruling that CPS had not made enough reasonable efforts to prevent removal of the children.

The law already allows CPS and a court to determine that no reasonable efforts can be made in a case to prevent removal of the children. But Darby's and Hilderbran's changes, while not altering that, would tilt the presumption in favor of removal, something the state should avoid, McCown said.

"We are trying to send a message to the judiciary by responding to their ruling," Darby said. "I agree with you. I think the opinion ought to be completely ignored."

All hearing long, however, center stage belonged to Jessop, who drew laughs when he presented Rose with a bottle of Happy Valley Compound, the sect's parody of Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing, and after the hearing smiled as he shook hands with Darby and gave the legislator a bottle.

Prospects for the bill seem promising, as Rose said he leans toward supporting it.

"I'm comfortable with this bill in general terms," he said after the hearing. "We need to work on it the next few weeks."

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