Stemming from FBI raids at House of Prayer Christian Churches in Georgia, Washington state, North Carolina and Texas in June 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice recently filed a forfeiture motion for almost $150,000. The motion claims the church and it's bible seminary defrauded hundreds of military members in a more than $22 million scheme.
The motion, filed Friday in the Southern District of Georgia, alleges the church committed theft and unlawful conversion of government property, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Authorities say the church used 20 financial institutions and 80 bank accounts to transfer funds.
Civil judicial forfeiture is a court proceeding brought against property that was derived from or used to commit an offense, according to the DOJ. There is no criminal conviction required, although the government is still required to prove in court the property was linked to criminal activity. In this case, the nearly $150,000 in assets were seized on July 22 from six accounts held by South Georgia Bank and First Citizens Bank as a result of federal seizure warrants authorized on July 21 in the Southern District of Georgia.
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The forfeiture stems from the seizure of HOPCC-owned property, which the motion notes is related to violations of other federal laws, currently under investigation by the FBI and U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs – Office of the Inspector General.
The Augusta Chronicle previously reported the church has been accused by former members and a veterans' advocacy group of operating like a cult and targeting military personnel.
FBI and Department of Veteran's Affairs confirmed in the motion the church established locations in close proximity to military bases in order to target military service members and veterans, seeking to exploit them and deprive them of their benefits.
The agencies also noted the church used "various psychological efforts" including public shaming, financial coercion, and control of minute aspects of the military members and veterans’ lives in order to control and exploit them economically. Church members were directed to enroll in the bible school and use their GI Bill benefits to pay for the school.
How the seminary obtained VA approval
The House of Prayer Bible Seminary initially obtained approval to receive VA education assistance benefits by stating it was providing courses to veterans in Hinesville and Hephzibah, Georgia; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Killeen, Texas; and Tacoma, Washington.
From January 2013 to January 2022, the VA paid 304 veteran students enrolled at the bible school approximately $16 million in the form of tuition, housing allowances and stipends, according to the motion. VA records also indicate that from January 2013 to February 2022 the VA issued tuition payments to the bible school totaling just short of $7 million for 210 veterans enrolled at the school.
In August 2020, Veterans Education Success, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., asked the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Georgia Veterans Service to investigate alleged abuses of the GI Bill program by House of Prayer Christian Church’s bible seminaries.
Veterans alleged the House of Prayer Christian Church "deceives the VA during inspections and targets veterans in order to access GI Bill funding, VA disability compensation, and VA home loans," according to the organization's letter to the VA and Georgia State Approving Agency.
Agents with the FBI and Department of Veteran's Affairs determined the seminary made numerous false statements to the VA in order to establish it's bible school as an educational institution.
The DOJ alleges education services were not performed to the standard required by the VA and the bible school made fraudulent statements to the VA including falsifying attendance rosters for courses, falsifying financial records of payments by students to the bible school, and falsifying graduation and completion records.
Had the bible school relayed truthful and accurate information to the VA, it would not have received funding or been able to operate in Georgia, according to the motion.
FBI spokespeople declined to disclose information related to the investigation. Open records requests submitted to the Department of Justice and the FBI have been rejected.
State approving agencies withdraw funding
In October 2022, the Augusta Chronicle reported the North Carolina State Approving withdrew program approval in January and multiple other state approving agencies followed suit after the FBI raid.
The Georgia SAA withdrew program approval effective June 27. The Texas SAA withdrew the House of Prayer Bible Seminary’s program on July 21. The Washington SAA followed on Aug. 1, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The church's formation and the man at the center of it all
The HOPCC, as its current and former members refer to it, began in 2003 when Rony Denis, who served as a minister at another church, recruited approximately 15 fellow ministers from across the country to leave that church and join him, said former church member and pastor Arlen Bradeen.
Denis founded the House of Prayer Christian Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2004 and moved the organization's headquarters to Hinesville, Georgia, soon after, according to Louisiana and Georgia Secretary of State documents.
Bradeen said Denis initially promised the parishes independence, but instead kept tight control over all of them using a polycom system.
“Using it like a conference call, it could connect all of the churches at the same time,” he said. “Someone could be preaching or singing a song and when the polycom rang, you heard it through the PA system, and everybody had to sit and listen to Denis.”
Elizabeth Biles, a former House of Prayer member who served in the National Guard, said the church recruited her at the Joint Base Lewis–McChord library in Tacoma, Washington.
“We were commanded to do that. We could not disobey,” Biles said, indicating the church targeted vulnerable military members far from family.
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