The Department of Justice is trying to seize money and property from a church group some former members describe as a cult that preyed on soldiers and veterans by bilking them out of millions of dollars of benefits.
Federal authorities are seeking some $150,000 spread across six bank accounts, a relatively small sum of money compared to what the House of Prayer ultimately earned though its bible school, which accepted millions in GI Bill funding for veterans. Authorities are also moving to seize the church's properties.
Five of House of Prayer's churches were raided by the FBI in June; all of the locations were near Army bases in Hinesville and Augusta, Georgia; Tacoma, Washington; Killeen, Texas; and Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Military.com was first to detail the complex alleged scheme that reportedly went on for nearly 20 years, pushing troops and veterans to relinquish their military paychecks and disability pay and use their Department of Veterans Affairs-backed home loans to drive revenue for the church. The church went as far as placing one of its own members into a job at the VA, allegedly to increase disability compensation for its members. Former members say that much of that cash ended up supporting a lavish lifestyle for the church's leader, Rony Denis.
Prosecutors allege the church moved money it earned through its operations across at least 80 bank accounts with at least 20 different banks to "conceal" where those funds originated, according to released court documents.
Court Watch was first to report on the forfeiture motion, wherein federal authorities requested permission to reclaim the $150,000, according to court documents released Friday.
However, public-facing court databases do not show any charges filed against Denis or any other key church figures.
The bulk of the church's money was allegedly in accounts with Chase, SunTrust/Truist, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, accounts that held at least $5 million worth of VA payments, according to federal officials. It's unclear if that money is still there or whether authorities will try to seize those accounts too.
The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did a spokesperson with the church respond to a request for comment ahead of publication of this story.
In many cases, members reportedly were pressured to live in barracks-style housing controlled by the church and perform hours of unpaid labor on the outskirts of major Army installations such as Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Stewart, Georgia. Women were often tasked with cooking and cleaning, while the men performed manual labor and maintenance, according to former members interviewed by Military.com.
But at the center of the church's access to federal funds was House of Prayer's bible school, which law enforcement representatives say didn't meet any of the requirements for a legitimate school that would be eligible for GI Bill use. Church officials allegedly made fraudulent claims to the VA that allowed the school to receive GI Bill funds since 2013, bringing in roughly $7 million from enrolling 304 students between January 2013 and February 2022.
An additional $8 million was paid out by the Department of Veterans Affairs directly to students for housing allowances and other stipends, money that former members told Military.com they were pressured to give to the church.
The investigation, led by the FBI in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General, found that House of Prayer "made numerous false statements to the VA in order to establish [the church] as an educational institution recognized by the VA in order to secure regular payments from the VA 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 school instructors, the number of students enrolled, and the location of facilities, while also misrepresenting the hours faculty members worked, the type of courses taught to students, and the quality of its courses.
In an interview with Military.com, a church leader who led the Bible school said it amounted to little more than brief classes on the gospel, also alleging that the names of classes were changed so VA regulators would continue to pay for what looked like a broad curriculum. Church officials went as far as staging classrooms with desks and other furniture during inspections from regulators, the source claimed.
The bulk of those alleged misrepresentations were made in documentation that all schools must file with the VA in order to be eligible for GI Bill funds. That eligibility is determined by state-approving agencies, which often have broad flexibility over what schools students can choose while receiving military benefits.
The flexibility is designed around cutting red tape and putting up as few burdens as possible on how a veteran spends their benefits, though there is also a history of schools, especially for-profit colleges, manipulating the system.
Military.com was first to report in October that all of House of Prayer's branches lost their GI Bill eligibility, following the FBI raids and media attention.
The investigation was spurred in 2020 after Veterans Education Success, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that lobbies on military education issues, raised concerns about the church to the VA and lawmakers.
"All veterans should feel 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 out, these student veterans have helped reclaim stolen GI Bill funds," Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success, told Military.com. "We are glad DOJ is seizing these bank accounts and recouping some of the stolen $7 million in GI Bill funds and urge DOJ to also seize the larger bank accounts and take any other steps to reclaim the rest of the GI Bill funds."
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.