The former pastor of an Imperial County-based church and his wife were sentenced in San Diego federal court Friday following their guilty pleas to benefits fraud charges, in a case that stemmed from allegations they forced homeless people to surrender their welfare benefits and panhandle for the organization.
Victor Gonzalez, who headed Imperial Valley Ministries, was sentenced Friday to six months in prison, plus six months of home confinement, while his wife, Susan Gonzalez, was given a time-served sentence.
The pair are among a dozen defendants who were indicted on allegations of recruiting homeless people in San Diego and other cities, then forcing them to raise money on behalf of the El Centro-based church.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said the church operated around 30 affiliate churches in the United States and Mexico. Its mission statement indicated its goal was “to restore drug addicts and their families.”
Prosecutors alleged IVM leaders forced program participants to panhandle for the financial benefit of its leadership and kept those who joined IVM confined in group homes against their will. They were required to hand over all identification and personal belongings to church directors and church rules included no contact with family members for 30 days after joining.
IVM participants were prohibited from seeking employment outside of daily panhandling for the church, the plea agreement states, with those who did not meet certain quotas or those who refused to panhandle subject to expulsion.
The defendants also unlawfully took and distributed benefits the victims received through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, according to the plea agreement, which states that Gonzalez lived for free in a home in El Centro, received a weekly salary and “other financial benefits such as occasional $1,000 ‘blessings’ from IVM.”
Victor Gonzalez’s attorney, Robert Rexrode, characterized IVM’s program as akin to “an aggressive drug treatment program” in which similar strict rules regarding confinement and limiting contact with others are imposed. He said the fundraising IVM participants took part in was far from involuntary servitude as alleged by prosecutors.
Rexrode said his client was a former drug addict who successfully completed the program, became a pastor, and was simply implementing the rules that existed when he was in IVM’s program.
Gonzalez stated in court that when he was a member of the IVM program, he also took part in “fundraising,” but never viewed it as a punishment. He said he always viewed the church as “a safe place where I wasn’t doing drugs.”
Rexrode said the benefits fraud, which involved improperly using IVM participants’ welfare benefits, was not used to enrich Gonzalez or other IVM leaders, but rather to purchase food for people in the program as intended.
A sentencing memorandum from Susan Gonzalez’s defense attorney states that “she and others in IVM requested that participants surrender their EBT cards, and the usage of their pooled SNAP benefits violates the law,” but this was the same practice that occurred when she was in IVM, so she did not question it. The attorney wrote that her client also sold items like candy on the streets for the church and turned her earnings over to IVM.
The Gonzalezes pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to commit benefits fraud, while other counts of forced labor, document servitude and other alleged crimes were dismissed.
All of the other defendants have also pleaded guilty, with most receiving time served sentences.
City News Service contributed to this article.