A controversial church in North Carolina ensured that donations would keep rolling in by encouraging financially struggling parishioners to file fraudulent unemployment claims, according to a report from the Associated Press.
Randy Fields, along with 10 other parishioners, says he was told to file the bogus claims when financial hardship prevented him from tithing the required 10 percent of his income. The AP’s report says Fields “pleaded” with his pastor at Word of Faith Fellowship church to reduce the amount of money he was required to tithe every week, only to be offered the unemployment scam as a solution.
The church’s founder, Jane Whaley, told him it was “God’s plan.”
Former members of the church estimated the scam would have brought the church hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of six years.
From the Associated Press:
In February, the AP cited more than three dozen former Word of Faith Fellowship members who said congregants were regularly punched and choked in an effort to beat out devils. The AP also revealed how, over the course of two decades, followers were ordered by church leaders to lie to authorities investigating reports of abuse.
Last month, the AP outlined how Word of Faith created a pipeline of young laborers from its two Brazilian congregations who say they were brought to the U.S. and forced to work at businesses owned by church leaders for little or no pay.
An AP investigation found that at least 6 businesses owned by church leaders filed fraudulent unemployment claims between 2008 and 2013 — with most of the businesses’ employees being church parishioners.
Even though Fields knew the practice was illegal, he said he went along with it anyway due to intense pressure from Whaley, who founded the church with her husband in 1979. If he refused, he said beatings and public shamings could be administered by the church.
Fields, who spent 24 years in the church before leaving in 2015, said his employees kept working without pay while collecting unemployment benefits. “Basically, their unemployment checks would become their paychecks,” he said.
It is illegal for employers or employees to knowingly file fraudulent unemployment claims. If investigators believe employers or employees were involved in a conspiracy, they could be charged with serious state and federal felony charges.
The former parishioners, who were forced to work while collecting unemployment, say that even working while receiving unemployment still left them financially strapped.
“I was making about $700 a week, but I only collected $235 a week in unemployment. … It was devastating for my family,” said Rick Cooper who was an employee at a business owned by church leader Kent Covington.
Former church member Racheal Bryant told the AP that Whaley was front in center when it came to the illegal practice.
“I remember after I was on unemployment for a few months and Jane said, ‘You’re still on unemployment, right?’ And I said ‘yes.’ And she said, ‘Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!'”
Featured image via AP