The Justice Department is trying to seize money and property from a church group that some former members describe as a cult that preyed on soldiers and veterans by swindling them out of millions of dollars in benefits.
Federal authorities are seeking about $150,000 spread across six bank accounts, a relatively small sum of money compared to what the House of Prayer ultimately earned through its Bible school, which accepted millions in GI Bill funds for veterans. Authorities are also moving to seize church property.
Five of the House of Prayer churches were raided by the FBI in June; all locations were near Army bases in Hinesville and Augusta, Georgia; Tacoma, Wash.; Killeen, Texas; and Fayetteville, North Carolina.
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Military.com was the first to detail the complex alleged scheme that allegedly lasted nearly 20 years, pushing troops and veterans to forgo their military paychecks and disability pay and use their Department of State Affairs-backed home loans. Veterans to generate income for the church. The church even went so far as to place one of its own members in a VA job, supposedly to increase disability compensation for its members. Former members say much of that money ended up supporting a lavish lifestyle for church leader Rony Denis.
Prosecutors allege the church moved money it earned through its operations through at least 80 bank accounts with at least 20 different banks to “hide” where those funds originated, according to published court documents.
Court Watch was the first to report the motion for forfeiture, in which federal authorities requested permission to claim the $150,000, according to court documents released Friday.
However, public court databases do not show any charges filed against Denis or any other key church figures.
Most of the church’s money was allegedly in accounts with Chase, SunTrust/Truist, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, accounts that had at least $5 million in VA payments, according to federal officials. It’s not clear if that money is still there or if authorities will try to seize those accounts as well.
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the church also did not respond to a request for comment prior to the publication of this story.
In many cases, members were reportedly pressured to live in barrack-style housing controlled by the church and perform unpaid work hours outside of major Army installations such as Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Stewart, Georgia. Women often did the cooking and cleaning, while the men did manual and maintenance jobs, according to former members interviewed by Military.com.
But at the center of the church’s access to federal funding was the House of Prayer Bible School, which law enforcement representatives said did not meet any of the requirements for a legitimate school that would be eligible for the grant. use of GI Bill. Church officials allegedly made fraudulent claims to the VA that allowed the school to receive GI Bill funding dating back to 2013, raising approximately $7 million from the enrollment of 304 students between January 2013 and February 2022.
The Department of Veterans Affairs paid an additional $8 million directly to students for housing allowances and other stipends, money former members told Military.com they were pressured to give to the church.
The investigation, led by the FBI in association with the Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General, found that House of Prayer “made numerous false statements to the VA to establish [the church] as a VA-recognized educational institution to ensure regular VA payments under the Post-9/11 GI Bill program.”
Prosecutors say the church’s claims about the Bible school included false statements about the qualifications of the school’s instructors, the number of students enrolled and the location of the facility, while misrepresenting the hours that members of the Bible school worked. faculty, the type of courses taught to students, and the quality of their courses.
In an interview with Military.com, a leader from the church that ran the Bible school said it was little more than short classes on the gospel, also alleging that the names of the classes were changed to keep VA regulators on track. paying for what seemed like an extensive curriculum. Church officials even went so far as to set up classrooms with desks and other furniture during inspections by regulators, the source said.
Most of those alleged misrepresentations were made in the documentation that all schools must submit to the VA to be eligible for GI Bill funds. That eligibility is determined by state endorsing agencies, which often have wide flexibility over which schools students can choose while receiving military benefits.
The flexibility is designed to cut red tape and put as little burden as possible on how a veteran spends their benefits, though there’s also a history of schools, especially for-profit universities, rigging the system.
Military.com was the first to report in October that all House of Prayer branches have lost their GI Bill eligibility, following FBI raids and media attention.
The investigation was launched in 2020 after Veterans Education Success, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that lobbies on military education issues, raised concerns about the church with the VA and lawmakers.
“All veterans should be proud of the student veterans who alerted us to the ways the House of Prayer was mistreating them and taking their VA benefits. By speaking up, these student veterans have helped recover stolen GI Bill funds.” , Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success, told Military.com. “We are pleased that the Department of Justice will seize these bank accounts and recover part of the stolen $7 million in GI Bill funds, and we urge the Department of Justice to also seize the largest bank accounts and take other steps to reclaim the remainder of the funds. of the G.I. Bill.”
— Steve Beynon can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.
Related: How a church allegedly swindled millions in VA money from vets
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