When the 2008 recession hit, a top minister at a secretive North Carolina church concocted a devious plan: “lay off” employees at his businesses, make them collect unemployment benefits—then force them to keep working full time, according to a federal indictment.
Marion Kent Covington, a minister at Word of Faith Fellowship church, carried out the scheme–which resulted in over $250,000 in fraudulent unemployment claims between November 2008 and March 2013—with Diane Mary McKinny, a church member, and other “co-conspirators,” the indictment says. On Thursday, Covington, 63, and McKinny, 65, were charged by a federal grand jury with wire fraud, and they now face up to 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine, the Charlotte Observer reported.
The indictment comes one month after fellow Word of Faith members Jerry Gross and Jason Lee Gross pleaded guilty to their involvement in the scam, according to the Associated Press.
This isn’t the first scandal the sect has weathered. Past members have accused leaders of “beating the demons” out of congregants, including gay worshippers, and operating a human pipeline that sent young Brazilians to work for ministers at the church in the small town of Spindale for little or no pay.
“The justification was to keep God’s businesses afloat. That was the reason. 100 percent, for the people who were doing it, they didn’t feel like they were necessarily defrauding anybody,” former Word of Life member Vicenta del Toro told the Charlotte Observer.
In the fraud case, Covington and McKinny came up with the plan in 2008, first testing it out at Diverse Corporate Technologies, the minister’s plastic manufacturing company, the indictment says. Covington and McKinny allegedly “laid off” workers at the company, then instructed them to file claims for unemployment benefits.
“Next, Covington called a business meeting at DCT and informed the remaining DCT employees that the company could no longer afford to pay their wages, and that they therefore would be placed on UI Benefits, but that Covington expected the employees to continue to work at DCT full-time in order to help the business survive,” the indictment states. “Covington used his position of authority within his church community, which included most, if not all, of the employees at DCT, to coerce the employees to comply.”
The alleged scam resulted in over six months of free labor for the plastics company, so the duo spread the word to the Grosses, a father-son pair who owned the Foot and Ankle Center of the Carolinas, and the owner of a for-profit contracting business, who was referred to as J.F. in court records, according to the documents.
The church members maintained the scheme for five years, replicating it at Covington’s Integrity Marble & Granite in 2010 and again at Sky Catcher Communication, a business the minister managed, federal officials said.
Covington and McKinny’s attorney, Stephen Cash, did not respond to requests for comment. The government is seeking at least $310,000 in forfeitures, and the pair are set to be arraigned on June 18.
Covington is married to Brooke Covington, one of several Word of Faith members accused of beating a gay teenager for over two hours in order to get rid of his “impure thoughts,” as previously reported by The Daily Beast.
“I didn’t think I was going to come out alive,” Matthew Fenner said in 2014. “I had at least 15-20 college age men around me, screaming, shaking me, punching me, hitting my chest, grabbing my head, telling me to repeat different phrases,” Fenner stated in an affidavit.
Local authorities delayed investigations of Fenner’s abuse allegations, leading the 24-year-old to pursue misdemeanor charges against the congregants and leaders, according to an AP investigation into the church. The case ended in a mistrial last year.
Jane Whaley co-founded the controversial church in 1979 with her husband, Sam. The congregation has grown to include over 750 members, with affiliate churches in Ghana and Brazil. Former members accused Whaley and company of encouraging Brazilian followers to come to the United States and work for church families, according to the AP. Andre Oliveira told the outlet that leaders confiscated his passport and money when he arrived in western North Carolina at the age of 18. He allegedly worked 15 hours a day with little to no pay.
“They trafficked us up here. They knew what they were doing. They needed labor and we were cheap labor—hell, free labor,” he told the AP in 2017. Forty-three former followers also said that leaders and members beat the demons out of people by smacking and choking them. The sect has denied several abuse allegations. There are ongoing criminal investigations into Word of Faith by state and federal authorities.
In March 2018, Brazilian authorities sued the North Carolina church, calling for it to be shut down and claiming it “reduced people to a condition analogous to slavery.”