FBI raided Hinesville church over possible VA fraud, according to court documents
HINESVILLE, Ga. (WTOC) - It’s been more than six months since the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided a church in Hinesville.
The raid in Hinesville was connected to raids in four other cities, Augusta, Ga., Killeen, Texas, Fayetteville, N.C., and Tacoma, Wash.
Now, a lawsuit filed in federal court in Georgia claims the churches were soaking up federal dollars that were supposed to help veterans.
A 25-page document filed in the Southern District of Georgia appears to be an attempt to take back part of the money the federal government says House of Prayer churches defrauded from the VA.
According to the document, the VA paid out around $22 million in tuition and benefits to the schools from 2013-2022 as part of GI Bill funding for education.
Former church members say this is only part of the issues that go on inside this group of churches.
“There’s a lot of things now looking back that were normal then, and I look back and think ‘what was I thinking?’ Obviously, how they would use people’s credit, use people’s houses, move people around that was normal to me growing up in it,” Sydney Daniels-Emanuel said.
Daniels-Emanuel grew up in the House of Prayer Church in Hinesville. The daughter of an Army family, she says the church was all she knew.
“18 is when I had tried to leave the first time. I got married at 19 in an arranged marriage, and I left when I was 21,” she said.
Daniels-Emanuel’s story about what members experience in the House of Prayer churches matches up with what’s in the court documents inside the lawsuit. The document states that the church, “used various psychological efforts, including public shaming, financial coercion, and control of minute aspects of the military members and veterans’ lives in order to control and exploit them economically.”
“Even our parents were so much under his control, no one was saying anything, it was like no one could protect you if he just decided to do whatever,” Daniels-Emanuel said.
He, being one of House of Prayer’s leaders, church members have identified as Rony Denis.
Arlen Bradeen, who has since left the church, was previously a teacher in the bible seminary school – the school that’s listed in the lawsuit.
“Denis would always say, ‘do not tell Bradeen this. Do not tell him we’re doing this, do not let him know,’” Bradeen said.
The document states that the school “targeted military members and veterans to exploit them of their benefits” and didn’t provide a proper education in return while “falsifying educational records, including attendance rosters, hours of instruction, and additional paperwork.”
“Whatever they submitted they made up. Although I was listed as CEO for years, Denis controlled everything,” Bradeen said.
Veterans Education Success, a non-profit that helps service members further their education, says they’ve been raising concerns over the school for years. Sending letters to the VA and Georgia’s State Approving Agency in 2020.
“We would like for any of the policymakers and legislators to learn from the experience of the veterans at the school, to learn from the experience of the veterans at this kind of school, and strengthen those kinds of program approval requirements, so it’s not so easy for a school to suddenly gain access to millions of really hard-earned G.I. Bill benefits,” said Della Justice, the vice president of Legal Affairs with Veterans Education Success.
Justice says while a refund on G.I. Bill money isn’t typically available for victims of fraud, her organization is working to help veterans impacted by House of Prayer.
And for military kids like Daniels-Emanuel, she said leaving the church was an important decision.
“It’s just so much freedom to be my own person, without someone over you getting upset because you didn’t do something,” she said.
The FBI says there still have not been any arrests made in this investigation.
If you’re a veteran who has been impacted by this system of churches, Justice says to reach out to the VA or Veterans Education Success for help - https://vetsedsuccess.org/ or https://www.va.gov/
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