California pastor, wife get jail time for using homeless in benefits fraud scheme: ‘Appalling abuse of power’

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A California pastor and his wife were sentenced to prison time earlier this month after pleading guilty to a charge related to what federal prosecutors described as a church labor trafficking scheme that victimized the homeless.

Victor Gonzalez, the head pastor of California-based Imperial Valley Ministries (IVM), was sentenced to six months in prison and another six months of house confinement after pleading guilty in a San Diego federal court to conspiracy to commit benefits fraud, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune.

His wife Susan Gonzalez, who pleaded guilty to the same charge, received a time-served sentence.

Gonzalez and his wife were among a dozen church leaders who were charged in 2019 with forced labor, conspiracy, document servitude and benefits fraud. He and the others were arrested Sept. 10, 2019, in El Centro, California; San Diego, California; and Brownsville, Texas.

The additional charges against them, for which they faced potentially 20 years in prison, were dropped. All other defendants have also pleaded guilty, and most have been given time-served sentences.

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Leaders were accused of scamming victims into rehabilitation homes, forcing them to surrender their welfare benefits and later keeping them against their will by confiscating identification cards, driver’s licenses, passports and immigration papers, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

They subjected mostly homeless people to forced labor by making them panhandle up to nine hours a day, six days per week for the benefit of IVM, which planted approximately 30 affiliate churches throughout the U.S. and Mexico, according federal prosecutors. IVM also owned three group homes in the El Centro area, one in Calexico and another in Chula Vista.

The victims were not allowed to communicate with their families for 30 days after joining, and were also prohibited from finding work beside panhandling for the church, according to the plea agreement. Those who did not meet specific quotas or refused to beg were at risk of being excommunicated.

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The plea agreement also says the defendants illegally seized and distributed benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

IVM leaders were also accused of using different abusive methods to force the participants to continue begging for their financial gain, such as threatening to take away their children if they left, not providing transportation home, or convincing them that their loved ones had rejected them and that “only God” loved them.

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Punishments for breaking home rules, including discussing the outside world, were said to include withholding food.

Gonzalez meanwhile lived for free in a home in El Centro, California, while raking in a weekly salary and “other financial benefits such as occasional $1,000 ‘blessings’ from IVM,” according to the plea agreement.

“The indictment alleges an appalling abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable homeless people with promises of a warm bed and meals,” U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said in 2019. “These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity.”

Robert Rexrode, Victor Gonzalez’s attorney, likened the strict rules and confinement regulations of IVM’s program to “an aggressive drug treatment program,” and maintained that the fundraising activity was not forced labor like prosecutors portrayed it.

Fox News’ Melissa Leon contributed to this report.

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