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'Hate group' leader denies misspending $5.3 million in church donations, pleads not guilty to tax evasion

A South Jersey man who calls himself the "Holy Spirit" pleads not guilty to a conspiracy charge. Federal prosecutors allege he stole money from church identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.

Jermaine Grant of Burlington Township, chief high priest of the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ in Harlem, used $5.3 million in church donations to fund an extravagant lifestyle and failed to pay taxes on the money, federal prosecutors say.

For more than eight years, beginning in 2007, they said, Grant used church money to pay for expensive vacations, luxury cars, and homes in exclusive locations across the country.

While leading the church, which the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies as a hate group, Grant was paid more than $2.3 million and received $2.9 million for expenses, according to a federal indictment charging him with conspiracy and tax evasion.

Prosecutors say church money was used to buy designer clothing, shoes, and accessories, including two Gucci handbags that cost more than $3,000 each, along with electronic devices and home furnishings. The money also was used to purchase real estate for Grant and his family, and to buy and lease vehicles including a 2010 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van and a 2014 Kawasaki recreational vehicle.

The spending included lodging and transportation for vacations at Walt Disney World that he, his wife, six of his children, and four others enjoyed, according to the indictment. There was another vacation at a Florida dude ranch. Prosecutors say church money was also used to pay for some of Grant's children to attend a private school and be driven there daily in a chauffeured Mercedes.

On Tuesday, Grant, 43, and co-defendant and church treasurer Lincoln Warrington, 48, of Teaneck, N.J., appeared in U.S. District Court in Newark, N.J., and pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion charges. They remain on home confinement with electronic monitoring, pending trial.

Grant's attorney , Gerald B. Lefcourt, did not return a message seeking comment. Warrington's attorney, Richard W. Levitt, said, "I'm not commenting on the evidence, I'm only defining what the charges are." The charges do not include theft, he said. "They pleaded not guilty. That's all anyone needs to know at this point."

In a 30-page indictment, federal prosecutors say Grant and Warrington are co-owners of Black Icon Entertainment, a company that diverted money from the church to entertainment offices in New Jersey, New York, and California.

The indictment alleges that the men then falsified tax returns. The company was created in part to portray Grant as "an entertainment industry mogul whose wealth was derived from his success in the industry," and to conceal from church members that his lifestyle was supported entirely by church donations, according to the indictment.

In 2009, the indictment alleges, Grant used a debit card to buy an Apple computer and furniture in Cherry Hill for a Philadelphia property. Thousands more were spent on Louis Vuitton and Neiman Marcus merchandise, and multiple furniture purchases for properties in New Jersey, New York, and Florida.

With chapters in Camden, Asbury Park and Vineland, N.J., and Philadelphia, Coatesville, and Norristown, as well as others nationwide, the church is a black separatist group that is on the extremist fringe of the Hebrew Israelite movement, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. That movement, the center says, preaches that blacks are the "true Jews" while "Jews are devilish impostors and white people are evil personified, deserving of death or slavery."

In 2000, Grant called himself the "Chief High Priest Tazadaqyah," saying that he was the "Holy Spirit" and that a "vengeful black Jesus would soon return to Earth to kill or enslave all whites," according to the Law Center.