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These Rules Don't Apply

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Senior Director of Strategic Alliances
LexisNexis Risk Solutions - Government

Can’t see the fraud? Look a little closer, especially in the buildings of Imperial Valley Ministries, an El Centro, CA based church. Imperial Valley Ministries was founded in the 1970s, with the purpose of ministering to individuals with substance use problems. Starting in 2013, under the leadership of Pastor Victor Gonzalez, the purpose became a ministry of stolen food stamps and forced labor.

When Gonzalez became pastor in 2013, Gonzalez and other church leaders, through 30 affiliate churches in the U.S. and Mexico, would recruit homeless people to join the group and then force them to raise money through panhandling (no tithing in this church of fraud). The victims were told by Gonzalez and the other IVM officials that they had to fulfill panhandling quotas or risk expulsion from the group homes. The church needed a new roof and fraudsters don’t care who they use to get money.

While residing at the IVM homes, the victims were forced to hand over their government-issued identification and when not panhandling, were kept inside behind locked doors with windows that were nailed shut.  Victims were also required to surrender their Electronic Benefits Transfer cards (food stamps), about $103,000 total, of which Gonzalez used for his personal benefit.

While Gonzalez was pastor, residents of IVM homes were forced to sign documents stating that they would not leave the homes unaccompanied, and they would hand over all identification and personal items to church directors. Other rules included no reading of anything other than the Bible, and no discussions of “things of the world,” according to the indictment. The 29th item on the list of rules was “None of the above rules apply to the pastor or his family”, which is true in the case of Gonzalez.

While co-defendants were found guilty of human trafficking in earlier court cases, on August 22, 2022, Gonzalez plead guilty to benefits fraud. Sentencing date has yet to be scheduled.

Big round of applause for the FBI on their excellent work on this case.

Today’s Fraud of the Day is based on an article “Pastor Who Used Homeless as Forced Labor, Three Others Plead Guilty to Benefits Fraud” published by Times of San Diego on August 24, 2022

The former pastor of an Imperial County church that federal prosecutors say forced homeless people to surrender their welfare benefits and panhandle pleaded guilty this week to conspiracy to commit benefits fraud.

Victor Gonzalez, who headed Imperial Valley Ministries, pleaded guilty in San Diego federal court on Monday along with three co-defendants to taking part in a labor trafficking scheme to recruit homeless people in San Diego and other cities, then force them to participate in raising money on behalf of the El Centro-based church.

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