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Seminary school with Tacoma site ripped off the VA for $7M, laundered funds, DOJ says

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland in May 2022. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

A chain of churches described by former members as a cult that targets soldiers for their government benefits is under federal investigation for money laundering and wire fraud, among other offenses, following a series of FBI raids this summer, including at its Tacoma location, according to court papers.

Federal prosecutors described the investigation of House of Prayer Christian Churches of America conducted by the FBI and the Inspector General for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs in a civil forfeiture complaint filed on Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, where the church is headquartered and operates a second location. HOPCC also has facilities in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Killeen, Texas, both near military bases.

Seamus Hughes, a research journalist and the deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, first publicized the complaint in a newsletter post shared with The News Tribune.

“HOPCC 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,” federal prosecutors alleged in court papers.

Current and former members have accused HOPCC of draining veterans’ GI Bill funds by perpetually enrolling them in bogus seminary classes and pressuring them to donate VA benefits, such as disability payments, according to an August 2020 report sent to the VA by the legal assistance nonprofit Veterans Education Success. The report also alleged HOPCC exploited veterans’ access to VA home loans.

A spokesperson for HOPCC, which was founded by Rony Denis, has declined to comment on the allegations.

Under heightened scrutiny following the FBI raids, HOPCC’s Tacoma bible college lost its approval for GI Bill funding in Washington on Aug. 1 after the school declined to turn over student files to the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board, which evaluates non-degree granting programs for VA eligibility.

A former HOPCC minister told The News Tribune the church on South 54th Street was constructed in 2004 and targeted soldiers at nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The Workforce Board first approved the school for GI Bill funds in 2014, and a 2018 onsite compliance audit identified “no errors,” according to a spokesperson.

A 2018 report by the VA Office of Inspector General determined program reviews conducted by state approving authorities nationwide were inadequate and lacked proper federal oversight. The report estimated the VA has made hundreds of millions in improper payments as a result.

The federal complaint alleges HOPCC collected nearly $7 million in fraudulent tuition payments from the VA on behalf of 210 veterans enrolled in its seminary program between January 2013 and February 2022. Accounting for added stipends and housing allowances, the VA paid out nearly $16 million during that time period.

At the same time, HOPCC deposited and transferred the money between at least 80 bank accounts at 20-plus financial institutions, which distanced the initial payments from where they were received, according to the complaint.

An accounting of the VA funds HOPCC received shows the bible colleges received about $1 million a year from 2015 through 2019, according to the complaint. Total payments dropped to $677,262 in 2020 and $407,799 for 2021.

In order to continue collecting payments, HOPCC made false statements about bible college curriculum, facilities, instructor qualifications and enrollment to the VA, according to the complaint. The organization also falsified course catalogs, attendance records and graduation records.

Critically, the VA prohibits programs from holding courses where more than 85% of the students are receiving VA assistance, and prosecutors allege HOPCC forged head counts to show otherwise.

HOPCC enrolled about 304 veterans through February 2022, according to the complaint.

In Georgia, prosecutors say HOPCC was granted religious exemptions from some state educational oversight by falsely stipulating it did not receive federal funding.

When students came asking for proof of program completion, HOPCC declined or delayed, according to the complaint. The veterans didn’t receive grades and were rarely tested.


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