NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Two leaders of a church that has drawn scrutiny for its anti-Jewish views were sentenced to prison Tuesday for taking millions in church funds for personal use, as hundreds of their followers gathered outside the courthouse to show support.
Jermaine Grant, the leader of the New York-based Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, received an 18-month sentence and treasurer Lincoln Warrington was sentenced to a year. Both men pleaded guilty last year to one count of conspiring to defraud the United States. Authorities alleged the two funneled the money through an entertainment company to Grant, who used it for private-school tuition for his children, a trip to Disneyland and luxury purchases such as a $32,000 Kawasaki recreational vehicle.
Neither defendant spoke to reporters outside the courtroom. A crowd of more than 200 followers cheered and chanted as Grant exited the courthouse, and he assailed the government’s case, telling the crowd that prosecutors “told lies.”
An indictment alleged the 44-year-old Grant took nearly $3 million in church money with the help of Warrington, 49, the church’s primary treasurer. The U.S. Attorney’s office estimated the duo failed to pay at least $250,000 in taxes on the money.
According to the indictment, the men used Black Icon Entertainment, a company with offices in Hackensack, New Jersey, New York and Beverly Hills, among other locations. It was allegedly created to give the impression that Grant was a successful entertainment mogul.
Grant used the money for real estate and other personal expenses. His children were driven in a chauffeured Mercedes to private school, according to the indictment.
Warrington’s lawyer declined comment after the sentencing. Grant’s lawyer, Gerald Lefcourt, appeared to imply the government targeted the church for racial reasons.
“There’s never been a church tax case like this,” he said. “This was an eight-year investigation of a black church — that says it all.”
The U.S. attorney’s office didn’t respond to a message seeking comment on Lefcourt’s statement, but denied similar claims in a motion filed by Grant and Warrington last year.
The church, whose members refer to themselves as Black Hebrew Israelites, is considered a fringe group whose members have been known to rail against white people and Jews. It drew additional scrutiny last month after the two attackers in the fatal shootings of three people at a kosher market in Jersey City left evidence on social media and in other communications that they shared the church’s views. But David Anderson and Francine Graham weren’t considered members of the church, authorities said at the time.
During remarks this month about the Jersey City shootings, federal law enforcement officials said the group is considered an ideological organization and not a criminal or terrorist organization. However the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist groups in the U.S., has listed the church as a black nationalist hate group.