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  • The Fayetteville Observer

    Fayetteville Bible school, church raided by feds accused of stalling investigation

    By Rachael Riley, Fayetteville Observer,


    Federal prosecutors say a church is hindering FBI investigations, while church representatives say the government didn’t properly serve legal documents on its associated school’s Fayetteville location.

    In June 2022, the FBI raided 11 House of Prayer churches across the country, including the one in Fayetteville.

    The searches came after a veterans advocacy organization sent a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs claiming the church defrauds military education benefits, and bilks its members of their military disability and pensions, among other allegations.

    The church is headquartered in Hinesville, Georgia, with nearly a dozen other locations set up nationwide near military installations.

    In Fayetteville, House of Prayer Christian Church and House of Prayer Bible Seminary are at 5204 Hodge St.

    Complaint and investigations

    The federal government has asked the court to compel the House of Prayer Bible Seminary to comply with two subpoena-like "civil investigation demands," filed in 2019 and 2023, according to an April 7, 2023, petition.

    The demands requested the church turn over information in a probe into allegations that the seminary or its representatives submitted false claims for veterans' education and housing benefits offered through the VA.

    According to the complaint, the VA paid the seminary more than $15 million in tuition, housing allowances and stipends from 2013 to 2022.

    The VA approves eligibility for the benefits based on a State Approving Agency’s validation. The North Carolina State Approving Agency withdrew program approval for the House of Prayer Christian Church in January 2022.

    Investigators demanded that the church:

    • Identify its current and former owners, employees and students.

    • The identities of anyone who made VA requests on behalf of the church and seminary.

    • Records of VA payments received by the seminary.

    • A list of properties owned, leased or rented by the church, owners of the properties and current occupants.

    • All applications by the seminary for VA education benefits.

    • Documents related to monitoring student registration, attendance, records, progress records, and transcripts.

    • All tuition and fee charges, invoices and receipts sent to students.

    • Tuition refund policies.

    • School catalogs, program outlines, curriculum guides and graduation evaluation forms.

    In the February 2023 civil investigation demand, investigators asked for information about how the church responded to the 2019 demand and the identities of individuals who provided information and documents.

    Not complying with the investigation

    The April 2023 petition states that no one from the seminary or anyone acting on its behalf had communicated with the government since the second demand was filed and that while representatives of the church provided documents and information from the 2019 request, they refused to provide a required sworn certificate of compliance.

    Contained in the court record was a March 2020 email from the church’s attorney that identified Marcus Labat as the veterans liaison and school official who would execute the certificates of compliance.

    A federal attorney reached out again to the church’s attorney about the sworn certificate in October 2021, September 2022 and February 2023, according to emails in court records.

    Federal prosecutors filed a Sept. 25 motion asking that the church, seminary and church corporate officers Labat, Gerard Robertson and William Pilkington show cause for why they shouldn’t be held in civil contempt.

    According to the motion, Georgia Secretary of State records list Robertson as the church’s chief executive officer, Labat as its secretary and Pilkington as its chief financial officer.

    Degrees awarded by the seminary also identify Robertson as its director, the motion stated.

    In records to the VA, Labat identified himself as the seminary’s controller, federal prosecutors said.

    “As corporate officers with authority to direct the affairs of HOPCC, and thus HOPBS, they have the power and obligation to ensure compliance with the Court’s orders,” the motion stated.

    Church responds

    In February, U.S. District Judge R. Stan Baker for the Southern District of Georgia granted the government's request to require the church to show why it shouldn’t be held on contempt of court.

    Separate motions filed March 12 by Robertson and Pilkington each stated that they “erroneously believed” that the church’s attorney would represent them and handle the matter.

    Each motion stated that while they search for attorneys, they would “adopt” the responses filed March 11 by the church, seminary and Labat.

    The church’s March 11 response stated that House of Prayer Christian Church is a “non-party,” because the government’s demands are directed at the Fayetteville-based House of Prayer Bible Seminary.

    The response further claimed that civil contempt should not lie with the church, seminary or church officers.

    The church said it provided the government with documents for the 2019 demand and didn’t hear anything else for 19 months.

    The church’s attorney told the assistant U.S. attorney in September 2022 that certification was not possible “because of the intervening developments in the criminal part of the case," which included search warrants, labeling key individuals as targets in the criminal investigation, and the specific allegations by the government.

    More: Church accused of preying on military members, including in Fayetteville, has funds seized

    Seminary school in Fayetteville didn't receive federal requests

    The church argued that because the government never properly served documents at the House of Prayer Bible Seminary in Fayetteville, it was not obligated to respond to the 2023 civil investigative demand, or subsequent petitions and motions.

    The church said articles of incorporation for the seminary state that the seminary in Fayetteville and Georgia-based church are separate nonprofit corporations with no owner and that the church is not a parent company or owner of the seminary.

    The government's April 2023 complaint stated that while the seminary is in Fayetteville, its parent company is House of Prayer Christian Churches of America Inc. in Hinesville, Georgia.

    Federal prosecutors provided a 2017 letter in their petition from Dennis Nostrant, administrative officer for House of Prayer Christian Churches, which stated that the church has been financially and administratively responsible for the Bible seminary since 2005.

    The church's motion stated that even if the seminary were properly served, it has “meritorious defenses" and "good reason" under Fifth Amendment rights for not certifying the 2019 civil investigative demand or responding to the 2023 civil investigative demands.

    “The Government’s intervening actions in its criminal investigation have rendered HOPBS’ compliance with the certification demand impossible,” the motion stated.

    The church alleged that after the government attempted to reach plea deals with its principal officers and directors, it “suddenly demanded” certification of civil investigative demand responses and that the civil investigation was an “attempt to gather evidence for its criminal investigation.”

    They said the 2023 demand doesn’t seek information relevant to the government's civil investigation.

    Fifth Amendment argument

    Labat’s response states that before a Sept. 25 government motion for why he shouldn’t be held in civil contempt, he “was specifically advised that he was a target of a criminal investigation by the Department of Justice for his alleged role in producing documents” for the 2019 civil investigative demand.

    He argued that because both civil investigative demands compel him to certify documents for a criminal investigation he is a “target” of, he is exercising his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

    In his response, Labat said that at a September 2022 meeting with federal prosecutors, he was notified investigators believed he had obstructed justice and provided false documents in response to the 2019 demand.

    He said the government told him he would likely be indicted and requested that he plead guilty, which he refused.

    He said that if he certified the 2019 demand, he would “be compelled to admit the government's allegation,” against him.

    As of Tuesday, no criminal charges had been filed against Labat.

    Staff writer Rachael Riley can be reached at or 910-486-3528.

    This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: Fayetteville Bible school, church raided by feds accused of stalling investigation

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