An advocacy group told a House panel on Wednesday that a church alleged to have scammed veterans out of millions of dollars in service benefits should be a wake-up call for regulators of GI Bill education payments.
The testimony by the Veterans Education Success advocacy group was part of a House Veterans Affairs panel that delved into which schools are eligible to receive the benefits. Lawmakers are also considering new legislation to better protect veterans, which could signal coming changes as the House of Prayer activities come to light.
House of Prayer's leader Rony Denis operates a chain of church locations near Army installations in the U.S., with its headquarters right outside Fort Stewart, Georgia. Former members told Military.com that the church collected GI Bill payments for classes that were little more than Bible study and never resulted in degrees. Overall, the church has collected $7 million in GI Bill payments since 2013.
Veterans often believe they are going to a school that has been adequately vetted and will have a good return on investment, including strong career opportunities, Will Hubbard, vice president for veterans and military policy at Veterans Education Success, testified to the House panel.
"For too many student veterans, that turns out to not be the case," Hubbard said. "As we saw [with] House of Prayer, there were hundreds of students that ended up in a cult, as they described. That's certainly not what I think any American wants to see as an outcome for our veterans."
Military.com found that Denis and the church slowly isolated its flock over two decades, pressuring troops and veterans into taking classes, donating much of their military pay, and taking out Department of Veterans Affairs home loans to buy properties that the church would flip or rent out.
The FBI raided the church's locations in June. The church may now represent one of the most egregious recent cases of veteran education benefits abuse, according to the allegations from former members -- and could push lawmakers and regulators to take a second look at how to protect taxpayer dollars.
Lawmakers were already aiming to better protect veterans from being scammed out of their GI Bill benefits by bogus schools. New proposals could erect safeguards around the margins.
The Student Veteran Emergency Relief Act, sponsored by Reps. Mike Levin, D-Calif., and Nancy Mace, R-S.C., was introduced in June and seeks to create more uniformity in how schools are approved for GI Bill payments by standardizing required forms.
Another omnibus bill, passed into law last year, aims to improve oversight of schools by establishing a public-facing searchable database. That could allow veterans to see potential red flags with a school, including complaints, veteran completion rates and any rapid increases to tuition and veteran enrollment. But that provision does not go into effect until August.
"The biggest challenge we see is that fraud is unfortunately quite pervasive. When a student veteran applies to use their GI Bill, the expectation is there's an implied stamp of approval at VA," Hubbard told the House panel.
The GI Bill benefit is one of the federal government's most cherished programs, serving as a direct path to the middle class for millions of service members and a key recruiting tool for the military services.
The VA delegates oversight over some 4,000 GI Bill approved schools to contracting State Approving Agencies, or SAAs -- all of which enforce different levels of scrutiny on education institutions.
In 2019, the VA stripped the California SAA's contract after disputes over its aggressive policing of for-profit schools. However, the VA under the Trump administration was criticized for its cozy relationship with for-profit universities.
Last year, Military.com reported that Howard University lost its GI Bill eligibility after a series of clerical errors. The problems were quickly resolved, but advocates at the time pointed to the incident as an example of the VA having more serious GI Bill issues to tackle
The House of Prayer churches were able to continue collecting GI Bill payments for years despite public warnings from service members and former members, as well as a warning from at least one base to stay away from several businesses tied to church leadership.
The church appears to have hit the jackpot in 2013 when at least five of its Bible schools became GI Bill-approved. After that, the cost of the school rose from roughly $300 a semester to $3,000, Arlen Bradeen, the school's former director, told Military.com. The schools were described as loosely organized Sunday school classes with no promise of a diploma or any career skills.
Meanwhile, the church allegedly coerced members to move out of barracks and pay rent to live in the church, where they would do chores. The alleged scheme to isolate active-duty troops and veterans went as far as what amounted to arranged marriages, to quell any outsider threats.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon