The Word of Faith Fellowship Church in North Carolina is under investigation after former members admitted that they had committed unemployment fraud in order to pay tithing to their church.
Randy Fields said that he had been worried about his company when the economy started to crash, so he asked the church leaders if he could be allowed to contribute less than the ten percent of his income that he was required to pay in tithing.
However, rather than letting Fields pay less in tithing, the church leaders reportedly told him to file fraudulent unemployment claims for his employees. According to the Associated Press, church founder Jane Whaley called the idea “God’s plan.”
Rather than paying the employees, Fields let the unemployment benefits be used as their paychecks, which allowed him to still pay the 10% tithing.
Fields admitted to knowing that the idea was illegal and fraudulent, but going against Whaley’s counsel could have resulted in a public beating and shaming by Whaley. He added that the church could have decreed that he had to be cut off from contact with his family.
“You knew it was wrong, but you knew you couldn’t say a word,” said Rick Cooper, who acknowledged falsely filing for unemployment from April 2011 to April 2012.
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What’s more, many of the congregants who filed for unemployment said that they had taken a huge financial hit because of it.
“I was making about $700 a week, but I only collected $235 a week in unemployment,” Cooper said. “So I’m working the same hours — many times, much longer hours — for less. It was devastating for my family.”
The former members claimed that Whaley was “heavily involved” in keeping the fraud going, even helping the members with the fact that they needed to prove that they were actively looking for work in order to stay on the benefits.
“Every week we’d go to the unemployment office and put down that we looked for work at other companies operated by Word of Faith Fellowship leaders,” Rick Cooper said. “Those companies would vouch for the Word of Faith members at the unemployment offices. It was a conspiracy. What’s amazing to me is that this went on for years and no red flags ever went off.”
Rick Cooper’s son, Jeffrey, an attorney, was concerned by the practice and even asked a “hypothetical question” of the Division of Employment Security.
“I said, ‘Can an employee file for unemployment while they were still working for a company?’” he told the AP.
When the state official replied that the practice was absolutely illegal, he told church leader Kent Covington, who “started screaming at me at the top of his lungs that I was wicked,” according to Cooper. As a result, Cooper was publicly rebuked by Whaley and was separated from his wife for six months.
The Department of Homeland Security and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation are now investigating the church and its members, who could see state and federal felony charges for the fraud.