Federal law enforcement entered a Tacoma church Thursday that former members have characterized as a cult that has committed fraud against soldiers stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The Savannah Morning News reported similar raids at House of Prayer Christian Church campuses near Fort Stewart and Fort Gordon in Georgia and Fort Hood in Texas on Thursday.
The church also operates a location in Tumwater, according to former members.
The FBI's Seattle field office confirmed agents conducted "court-authorized law enforcement activity" at the church's Tacoma location on South 54th Street but declined to provide additional details. Tacoma police spokesperson Wendy Haddow said one of the department's detectives assisted federal agents.
A voicemail left at the church's Tacoma location was not immediately returned and contact information for a central office could not be identified. The News Tribune has attempted to contact the business representative for House of Prayer Christian Churches of America who registered with Washington's Secretary of State.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Washington and Joint Base Lewis-McChord did not immediately respond to requests for information.
Former House of Prayer minister Adam Boles told The News Tribune he watched agents enter the Tacoma church around 8:30 a.m. and provided statements to police. Boles, an Army veteran who owns a contracting company, said he helped construct the building in 2004 but left the group in 2020 after raising concerns about church leadership.
Former and current members allege the House of Prayer drains veterans' GI Bill funds by perpetually enrolling them in seminary programs and pressures them to gain 100% disability through the VA with false information then donate their benefits, according to an August 2020 letter sent to the VA by the legal assistance nonprofit Veterans Education Success.
The members also accused the House of Prayer of using their personal information and forging signatures to apply for home loans, the report from Veterans Education Success shows. Some reported multiple properties were purchased without their knowledge.
The report was compiled from interviews with more than a dozen former members and says House of Prayer operates bible colleges at the Tacoma, Texas and Georgia locations that the FBI entered Thursday as well as another seminary in Fayetteville, North Carolina near Fort Bragg. The group also operates 12 churches, 11 of which are near military installations.
Former members say the church is centered around the personality of founder Rony Denis and allege House of Prayer leaders harass and retaliate against those who speak out against the church, according to the report and interviews with The News Tribune.
GI Bill funds
Former veteran students told Veterans Education Success the church charged them higher tuition rates than civilian students and increased their payments depending on the federal program they received funding from, according to the report. One former student reported paying at least $500 a month under one GI Bill program and at least $800 a month under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
The former students also accused the bible schools of changing curriculum and requirements to maintain student enrollment, according to the report.
All of the former students interviewed said they exhausted their GI Bill funds through the seminary without earning a credential, the report shows. Two of them reported attending the seminary programs for more than a decade.
The House of Prayer's Tacoma bible college received more than $153,000 in Post-9/11 GI Bill funds from 20 students during the 2020 fiscal year, according to a VA database. Records show 32 current GI Bill students.
Former students said the majority of people enrolled in seminary programs were veterans and that the House of Prayer used falsified figures to meet the proper ratio required by the VA to collect GI Bill funds, according to the report.
The students also alleged that teachers were not properly certified, officials counted time spent recruiting new members and doing chores toward instruction hours, and leaders misrepresented classroom locations to VA officials, the report says.
When one student tried to transfer to another seminary program, the school said he would have to start his education over, according to the report.
"I don't see how VA approved them to be a school," the student told Veterans Education Success. "That is not a real school."