When Randy Fields’ construction company faced potential ruin because of the cratering economy, he pleaded with his pastor at Word of Faith Fellowship church to reduce the amount of money he was required to tithe every week.
To his shock, Fields said church founder Jane Whaley proposed a divine plan that would allow him to continue tithing at least 10 percent of his income to the secretive evangelical church while helping his company survive: He would file fraudulent unemployment claims on behalf of his employees. She called it, he said, “God’s plan.”
Fields and 10 other former congregants told The Associated Press that they and dozens of employees who were church members filed bogus claims at Word of Faith Fellowship leaders’ direction, and said they had been interviewed at length about the false claims by investigators with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
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.
The former members estimated the fraudulent claims — some filed by the business owners’ wives and other family members — would have drawn payments totaling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of six years.
The Department of Homeland Security referred questions to the U.S. attorney’s office in Charlotte, which cited an “ongoing investigation into allegations against Word of Faith Fellowship” and would not elaborate. The State Bureau of Investigation said the agency would not comment “due to the overall investigation” involving the church.
Whaley and church attorney Josh Farmer did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
In February, 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.
Last month, the AP 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.
The AP’s stories have triggered…