Two members of a secretive evangelical church in North Carolina were charged Friday in an unemployment benefits scheme that former congregants have said was part of plan to keep money flowing into the church despite the struggling economy.
As part of an ongoing investigation into 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 the unemployment dealings of congregants and their businesses.
Dr. Jerry Gross, 72, and his son, Jason Lee Gross, 51, were charged with wire fraud in U.S. District Court in Ashville. They were both charged in a criminal bill of information, which generally means defendants have agreed to waive indictment and plead guilty. They will appear in court May 25.
Jerry Gross owned the Foot & Ankle Center of the Carolinas in Forest City, North Carolina. His son worked there, according to court records.
The U.S attorney's office said the scheme, from September 2009 to March 2013, netted nearly $150,000. The two made it appear that they had laid off employees, making them eligible for unemployment benefits, but prosecutors said the workers remained on the job.
AP cited 11 former congregants in September who said dozens of church members filed bogus claims at various times at the direction of church leaders.
Telephone and emails messages left for Jerry Gross' attorney, Walter C. Holton Jr., and Jason Gross's attorney, David Freedman, were not immediately returned Friday.
"This is a huge first step," said former congregant Ben Cooper, an attorney. "We hope there's more to come. They've hurt a lot of people."
Former congregant Randy Fields had told the AP that his construction company faced potential ruin around 2008 because of the cratering economy, so he pleaded with church leaders to reduce the amount of money he was required to tithe every week.
To his shock, Fields said church founder Jane Whaley proposed a plan that would allow him to continue contributing at least 10 percent of his income to the Word of Faith Fellowship while helping his company survive: He would file fraudulent unemployment claims on behalf of his employees. She called it, he said, "God's plan."
The unemployment allegations were uncovered as part of the AP's ongoing investigation into Word of Faith, which has 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 Sweden, Scotland and other countries.
In February 2017, the AP cited more than three dozen former Word of Faith Fellowship 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 Word of Faith created a pipeline of young laborers from its two Brazilian congregations who say they were brought to the U.S. and forced to work at businesses owned by church leaders for little or no pay.
Over the years, church leaders have owned and operated more than two dozen businesses.
Those stories led to investigations in the U.S. and Brazil.
As for the alleged unemployment scheme, interviews with former followers, along with documents reviewed by the AP, indicated at least six companies owned by leaders were involved with filing fraudulent unemployment claims between 2008 and 2013. Most of those businesses' employees are congregants, the AP found.
The AP reviewed individual checking account records that showed unemployment benefits deposited by the state, along with income tax records summarizing how much money some of the former followers interviewed received annually in such payments.
In North Carolina, companies pay a quarterly unemployment tax based on the number of their workers, with the money going into a fund used to pay out claims, according to Larry Parker, spokesman for the Division of Employment Security, which oversees the program.
When a worker files for unemployment, the agency checks with the employer to learn the reason. If an employer says a worker was let go because of the poor economy, payments usually are approved quickly, Parker said.
During the recession, which started in 2007 and was driven by the housing meltdown, laid-off workers could receive state and federal extensions increasing unemployment to 99 weeks with a maximum weekly check of $535. But in 2013, North Carolina legislators tied benefits to the state's unemployment rate. Currently, laid-off workers can receive up to 26 weeks of unemployment, with a maximum payment of $350 a week, Parker said.
And, he emphasized, a worker must have been laid off to collect unemployment.
"If a company is trying to make workers work while they collect unemployment, that's a potential fraud situation," Parker said.
The former congregants said that not only were they coerced into continuing to work while collecting unemployment, the money fell short of what they needed to pay their bills.
Weiss reported from Greenville, South Carolina, and Mohr reported from Jackson, Mississippi.