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Minister at secretive N Carolina church sentenced for fraud

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — A minister at a secretive church in North Carolina has been sentenced to 34 months in prison and ordered to pay $466,960 in restitution for his role in an unemployment fraud scheme involving businesses owned by members of the congregation.

Kent Covington, a minister at the Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina, was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud in U.S. District Court in Asheville in June 2018. He pleaded guilty to the charge in September. The conspiracy charge carried a possible maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

"I've come here to admit what I've done is wrong," Covington told U.S. District Court Judge Martin Reidinger before he was sentenced. But U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger said Covington showed a "cynical disregard for the law." He noted that the scheme happened at a time when the state agency that handles unemployment had to borrow money during the recession.

"It undermined the entire employment security structure of the state. It was sort of like picking the pocket of a dying man," Reidinger said. The sentencing is the latest development in the investigation by The Associated Press that, beginning in 2017, documented claims of physical and emotional abuse at the church. AP also reported that authorities were looking into the unemployment claims of congregants and their businesses.

Prosecutors say Covington and his employee, Dianne McKinny, laid off employees at one of Covington's businesses so they could collect unemployment benefits in 2008 when the company was struggling financially. But the employees continued to work at the company, Diverse Corporate Technologies, with the unemployment checks replacing their salaries. They later put the scheme into place at Covington's other business, Integrity Marble & Granite. Covington then implemented a variation of the scheme at Sky Catcher Communications Inc., a company he managed, prosecutors say.

McKinny has pleaded not guilty. She is scheduled for trial May 6. In addition to conspiracy, McKinny is charged in a subsequent indictment with lying to federal agents. Besides Covington and McKinny, two others were charged in the federal investigation. Dr. Jerry Gross, a podiatrist, and his son, Jason Gross, were sentenced last week to three years on probation and jointly ordered to pay restitution of $162,276 after admitting to fraud at a podiatry clinic in Forest City, North Carolina. Both are listed as ministers on the church website.

Jane Whaley, the church's leader, has not been charged, but she was named in a court document as someone who "promoted" the scheme. The church has hundreds of members in Spindale, North Carolina, and a few thousand in churches in Brazil and Ghana.

Former members said Whaley called it "God's plan" to help the businesses survive the economic downturn and keep money coming into the church. Covington's lawyer, Stephen Cash, has said that while Covington pleaded guilty, it was not an "admission that Jane Whaley instructed him to act."

Whaley's attorney, Noell Tin, has said Whaley "strongly denies any insinuation that she was somehow involved in Mr. Covington's offense, as does Mr. Covington." Nearly 100 Word of Faith members packed Reidinger's courtroom. The judge said many members of the community sent letters supporting Covington. Between the letters and the crowd of well-dressed church members filling the rows in court, the judge wondered what happened to Covington.

"This is a case that just baffles me. I've seen hundreds of cases and I think I have a pretty good grasp of the psychological pathology that underpins these cases. This one I don't understand," he said. But he said one thing was clear: He "needed to send a message to the community as a whole: You can't do things like that. You can't use any kind of government program as a personal piggy bank."

The scheme resulted in more than $250,000 in fraudulent claims between November 2008 and March 2013, according to the original indictment. In February 2017, the AP cited 43 former 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 the church created a pipeline of young laborers from its two Brazilian congregations who say they were brought to the U.S. and forced to work for little or no pay at businesses owned by church leaders.

Covington is described by former congregants as the highest-ranking member of the church to be charged in the unemployment case. His wife, Brooke Covington, is one of Whaley's most trusted confidants.

Brooke Covington is facing unrelated state charges that she and other members of the church assaulted a congregant in 2013 in an effort to expel his "homosexual demons."

Read more of AP's Broken Faith series here .

Mohr contributed from Jackson, Mississippi.

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