SPINDALE, North Carolina – When Randy Fields' construction company faced potential ruin because of the cratering economy, he pleaded with his pastor at Word of Faith Fellowship church to reduce the amount of money he was required to tithe every week.
To his shock, Fields said church founder Jane Whaley proposed a divine plan that would allow him to continue tithing at least 10 percent of his income to the secretive evangelical church while helping his company survive: He would file fraudulent unemployment claims on behalf of his employees. She called it, he said, "God's plan."
Fields and 10 other former congregants told The Associated Press that they and dozens of employees who were church members filed bogus claims at Word of Faith Fellowship leaders' direction, and said they had been interviewed at length about the false claims by investigators with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The unemployment allegations were uncovered as part of the AP's ongoing investigation into Word of Faith, which has about 750 congregants in rural North Carolina and a total of nearly 2,000 members in its branches in Brazil and Ghana and its affiliations in Sweden, Scotland and other countries.
The former members estimated the fraudulent claims — some filed by the business owners' wives and other family members — would have drawn payments totaling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of six years.
The Department of Homeland Security referred questions to the U.S. attorney's office in Charlotte, which cited an "ongoing investigation into allegations against Word of Faith Fellowship" and would not elaborate. The State Bureau of Investigation said the agency would not comment "due to the overall investigation" involving the church.
Whaley and church attorney Josh Farmer did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
In February, the AP cited more than three dozen former Word of Faith Fellowship 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.
Last month, the AP outlined how Word of Faith created a pipeline of young laborers from its two Brazilian congregations who say they were brought to the U.S. and forced to work at businesses owned by church leaders for little or no pay.
The AP's stories have triggered investigations in both the United States and Brazil.
Over the years, church leaders have owned and operated more than two dozen businesses. The interviews with former followers, along with documents reviewed by the AP, indicate at least six companies owned by leaders were involved with filing fraudulent unemployment claims between 2008 and 2013. Most of those businesses' employees are congregants, the AP found.
Fields, who spent 24 years in the church before leaving in 2015, said his employees kept working without pay while collecting unemployment benefits. "Basically, their unemployment checks would become their paychecks," he said.
It is illegal for employers or employees to knowingly file fraudulent unemployment claims. If investigators believe employers or employees were involved in a conspiracy, they could be charged with serious state and federal felony charges.
Fields said he knew the plan was not legal but went along with it because of intense pressure from Whaley, who founded the church with her husband in 1979.
The price of the refusal, Fields said, could be beatings administered by fellow church members and public shaming by Whaley.
"You knew it was wrong, but you knew you couldn't say a word," said Rick Cooper, who acknowledged falsely filing for unemployment from April 2011 to April 2012.
During the recession, which started in 2007 and was driven by the housing meltdown, laid-off North Carolina workers could receive state and federal extensions increasing unemployment to 99 weeks with a maximum weekly check of $535. Currently, laid-off workers can receive up to 26 weeks of unemployment, with a maximum payment of $350 a week.
"If a company is trying to make workers work while they collect unemployment, that's a potential fraud situation," said Larry Parker, spokesman for the Division of Employment Security.
The former congregants said that not only were they coerced into continuing to work while collecting unemployment, the money fell short of what they needed to pay their bills.
"I was making about $700 a week, but I only collected $235 a week in unemployment. … It was devastating for my family," said Cooper, who worked for Diverse Corporate Tech Inc., a manufacturing company owned by church leader Kent Covington.
Covington did not return several phone messages from the AP.
Some of those interviewed by the AP said they learned about the practice at meetings with company officials, but that Whaley herself also promoted it.
"Jane was heavily involved. She was always asking questions about it," said Rachael Bryant, who calculated that she had received unemployment benefits of about $200 a week for 18 months while still working for a Word of Faith minister.
"I remember after I was on unemployment for a few months and Jane said, 'You're still on unemployment, right?' And I said 'yes.' And she said, 'Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!'" Bryant said.
Mohr reported from Jackson, Mississippi. AP researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.