Minister at secretive N.C. 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.

Prosecutors had recommended a sentence between 57 and 71 months for Covington.

“The unemployment insurance system was his piggy bank, there for his convenience, and he raided it when he felt the need,” prosecutors wrote.

The development follows an investigation by The Associated Press that, beginning in 2017, documented claims of physical and emotional abuse at the church. Authorities were looking into the unemployment claims of congregants and their businesses.

Prosecutors say Covington and his employee, Dianne McKinny, decided to lay 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.

U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger said that Covington had shown a “cynical disregard to the law” and he wanted to send a message to the community. The judge noted that the unemployment scheme happened at a time when the state had to borrow money during the recession.

The judge said Covington’s actions “undermine the entire unemployment security structure of the state. … It’s sort of like picking the pocket of a dying man.”

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