The South Jersey leader of a black separatist church was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison Tuesday for lavishly spending the sect’s money on personal expenses and evading taxes, authorities said.
Jermaine Grant, 44, of Burlington Township, who heads the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, used his leadership position to divert millions of dollars belonging to the church and its members for his personal use, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey. He used the money for rental properties, vacations, high-end luxury items, and private school tuition for his children, prosecutors said.
Also sentenced Tuesday in federal court in Newark by U.S. District Judge William J. Martini was a treasurer for the church, Lincoln Warrington, 49, of Bergen County. He was sentenced to 12 months and a day in prison. Authorities said he helped Grant divert church funds and evade paying personal income taxes.
Both men had pleaded guilty in March to conspiring to defraud the federal government.
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 has been listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has said the church is one of the biggest Black Hebrew Israelite groups in the United States, with chapters in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The church also reportedly has chapters in South Jersey, including in Camden.
The church attracted further scrutiny last month after two assailants, David Anderson and Francine Graham, targeted a kosher supermarket in Jersey City and killed three people, as well as a police officer at a nearby cemetery. Police killed the shooters during an hours-long standoff. The shooters left evidence on social media and in other communications that they shared the church’s views, but they weren’t considered members of the church, authorities said at the time.
As part of their scheme, Grant and Warrington created a purported entertainment company, Black Icon Entertainment, that portrayed Grant as an industry mogul whose wealth was derived from his business success, thus concealing from church members that his lifestyle was supported entirely by the church and membership donations, prosecutors said.
The defendants concealed millions of dollars in income from the IRS, and Grant failed to pay at least $250,000 in taxes, prosecutors said.
Grant’s Manhattan-based attorney, Gerald Lefcourt, said after the hearing that his client was happy the case was concluded.
“It’s unfortunate that with white churches having televangelists and private jets and large compounds and endless tax-free property, that the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey has picked on a small black congregation to investigate for eight years,” Lefcourt said.
He said the Southern Poverty Law Center has been “wrong” to call the church a hate group. “[Grant] said when he first joined, it was [a hate group], and he has changed that,” Lefcourt said, adding that Grant joined the group at age 14 while living in Harlem.
Lefcourt said there was “no allegation of violence or hate from this group” in the federal allegations in the case.
Grant and Warrington will start their prison terms in the next several weeks, Lefcourt said.
Warrington’s Manhattan-based attorney, Richard Levitt, declined to comment.
Both defendants were sentenced to three years’ supervised release after their prison terms.
Their plea agreements require that the church develop and present to the government a plan to ensure its future compliance with federal tax laws, federal prosecutors said.