A North Carolina district attorney said Friday that two assistant prosecutors no longer work for him after The Associated Press reported ex-members of a church said the men, who belong to the sect, derailed criminal investigations into possible abuse by church leaders.
David Learner's announcement came two days after he asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into allegations from former Word of Faith members against Frank Webster and Chris Back and four days after the AP story cited nine people who said the men provided legal advice, helped at strategy sessions and participated in a mock trial for four congregants charged with harassing a former member.
"I cannot allow the integrity of the office to be called into question," Learner said in a statement.
The ex-congregants also said that Back and Webster, who is sect leader Jane Whaley's son-in-law, helped derail a social services investigation into child abuse in 2015 and attended meetings where Whaley warned congregants to lie to investigators about abuse incidents.
The statement did not say if the men resigned or if Learner fired them, and the district attorney's office didn't respond to questions Friday. When the AP story broke Monday, the district attorney said Webster and Back were still employees and it was a personnel issue. On Wednesday, he said the men would keep working for his office during the state investigation.
Under North Carolina law, prosecutors cannot provide legal advice or be involved in outside cases in any manner. Violation of those rules can lead to ethics charges, dismissal or disbarment. Offering legal advice in an ongoing investigation to help a person avoid prosecution could lead to criminal charges.
Back and Webster have not responded to several messages left by the AP.
Learner is district attorney for Burke, Caldwell, and Catawba counties in western North Carolina. Word of Faith church is in Spindale in nearby Rutherford County.
The AP recently revealed decades of physical and emotional abuse inside the church, which has 750 members in North Carolina, and nearly 2,000 members in churches based in Brazil and Ghana. Former members said congregants were punched, choked and thrown through walls as part of a violent form of deliverance meant to purify sinners. (http://apne.ws/2lmuzDA ).
Read more of AP's investigation of the Word of Faith Fellowship here: http://apne.ws/2lmuzDA
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at email@example.com