The high priest of a Harlem separatist group will be sentenced this summer for bilking millions of dollars from the church, but not soon enough for former parish leaders who say he’s a long way from repenting.
Jermaine Grant, 43, who heads the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ in Harlem, pleaded guilty last month in U.S. District Court in Newark to a charge of conspiring to defraud the U.S.
Prosecutors said that for nine years Grant and church treasurer Lincoln Warrington diverted more than $2 million from the group’s coffers to fund luxury expenses. Authorities said they failed to report more than $5 million income to the IRS.
Grant faces up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines when he is sentenced in July.
But according to former members and sources, who call the church a cult-like ministry, Grant plans to run the parish from behind bars — while the church continues to collect its lucrative “tithes.”
Under the terms of the plea agreement, the church is required to present a plan that ensures its compliance with federal income tax laws.
But despite an ankle-monitoring device that limits Grant’s movements while he awaits sentencing, sources close to the congregation say the New Jersey man still wields considerable control over the church, which has satellite parishes across the country.
“I’m afraid for these people,” said a community activist with ties to the Madison Avenue church.
When the FBI raided the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ last year, agents came out with crates of money, the product of mandatory monthly 20 percent tithes, double the biblical requirement.
Insiders said crates were stacked from floor to ceiling, guarded by a 24-hour protection detail that operates inside and outside the church every day.
Church membership requires more than just a love of God. Entry requires a verified referral — and a monthly payment plan backed by biblical brainwashing, insiders say. Attendees surrender their cell phones at the door, and swear devotion to man who calls himself the “God-sent Comforter.”
“It’s a cult organization organization,” said Barry Pugh, 50, a former congregation member. “It didn’t appear that way at first, but it is.”
Pugh led the church’s media production team, which required him to travel extensively with Grant, a duty that exposed him to the leader’s seedy side.
Pugh, frustrated with what he said is faulty church doctrine and Grant’s gargantuan greed, left the church in 2014, became a whistleblower, and was prepared to testify for prosecutors before Grant cut a deal with the feds.
Now Pugh is on a mission to save souls from Grant’s control, and financial ruin. Pugh and other outcast members dubbed by the church as the “Injustice League,” have used Pugh’s media skills to produce a series of YouTube videos exposing Grant’s alleged lies.
“The No. 1. lie is that is that he’s claiming to be the comforter that the Bible speaks of which is the Holy Spirit,” Pugh said.
The videos share information also included in a federal indictment against Grant alleging that he laundered church money through a bogus New Jersey entertainment company.
Prosecutors said he used the funds to buy property, vehicles, trips and private school tuition for his kids, who, according to court papers, were driven to school every day in a chauffeured Mercedes Benz paid for with funds from a church bank account.
“The church was being used as a cash bank,” Pugh explained. And the money, he said, was coming from people who could least afford it.
The Injustice League isn’t the only group criticizing Grant and the church. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, has classified the Israelite Church as a black nationalist hate group for preaching that a black Jesus will return to earth to enslave and kill white people.
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But the so-called separatist doctrine didn’t stop Grant from hiring a white lawyer, Gerald Lefcourt, who said, despite Grant’s guilty plea, that his client has “really done nothing wrong.”
Lefcourt said Grant never received a salary from the church, and did not understand his obligation to pay taxes on “imputed income,” or compensation he received in the form of fringe benefits.
“Jermaine is a committed church leader,” Lefcourt said. “He believes in that religion.”
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In 2013, the church ordered action figures cast in Grant’s image — but sued the toy manufacturer because the dolls weren’t black enough.
“Everywhere he went he took the media department with him to glorify himself,” Pugh said. “He brainwashes people to have them think only one way. I still don’t see things changing.”
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