Two members of a secretive evangelical church in North Carolina were charged Thursday with conspiracy to commit wire fraud in an alleged unemployment benefits scheme that former congregants have said was meant to keep money coming into the sect.
Marion Kent Covington, 63, and Diane Mary McKinny, 65, both of Rutherfordton, North Carolina, were indicted in U.S. District Court in Asheville.
Prosecutors say Covington and McKinny decided to lay off employees at Covington's business so they could collect unemployment benefits in 2008 when the company was struggling financially. But the employees continued to work at the company, Diverse Corporate Technologies. They later put the scheme into place at Covington's other business, Integrity Marble & Granite. Covington then put in place a variation of the scheme at Sky Catcher Communications, Inc., a company he managed, prosecutors say.
The scheme resulted in more than $250,000 in fraudulent claims between November 2008 and March 2013, according to court records. The charges carry a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine. Prosecutors are seeking the forfeiture of at least $309,660. Both defendants will be arraigned on June 18.
Most employees were members of the Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina. Prosecutors say Covington used his leadership position in the church to force them to comply.
No one responded to telephone messages left for Covington's attorney, Stephen Cash, and McKinny's lawyer, Charles McKeller, Thursday afternoon.
As part of an ongoing investigation into claims of physical and emotional abuse at the Word of Faith Fellowship Church in Spindale, North Carolina, The Associated Press reported in September that authorities were looking into unemployment-claims practices of congregants and their businesses.
Kent Covington spent eight months in a North Carolina prison in 1974 for breaking and entering, and larceny, and later joined the church. His wife, Brooke Covington, is one of the most trusted confidants of church founder Jane Whaley, who members consider a prophet.
By September 2009, several other businesses run by members of the church were also struggling financially so Covington and McKinny "promoted the fraud" to others, according to the indictment. At least five businesses implemented the scheme, the indictment said.
Two other ministers, Dr. Jerry Gross, 72, and his son, Jason Lee Gross, 51, pleaded guilty on May 25 to wire fraud related to unemployment benefits at a podiatry clinic in Forest City, North Carolina. As part of his plea deal, Jerry Gross agreed to cooperate with the government.
In September, 11 former congregants told the AP that dozens of church members filed bogus unemployment claims between 2008 and 2013 at the direction of church leaders. Former members said Whaley promoted the scheme as "God's plan" to help the businesses survive the economic downturn and keep money coming into the church.
The unemployment allegations were uncovered as part of the AP's ongoing investigation into Word of Faith, which had about 750 congregants in rural North Carolina and a total of nearly 2,000 members in its branches in Brazil and Ghana and its affiliations in other countries.
In February 2017, the AP cited 43 former 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.
AP later outlined how the church created a pipeline of young laborers from its two Brazilian congregations who say they were brought to the U.S. and forced to work for little or no pay at businesses owned by church leaders.
Those stories led to investigations in the U.S. and Brazil. In March, Brazilian labor prosecutors filed suit to close one of the churches and its school in Sao Paulo, saying its leaders "reduced people to a condition analogous to slavery."
Read more about AP's Broken Faith investigation here https://www.apnews.com/tag/BrokenFaith
This story has been edited to correct the spelling of McKinny throughout.