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California Pastor Pleads Guilty for Illegally Exploiting More than $100,000 in Homeless People’s SNAP Benefits

Former California pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries (IVM) Victor Gonzalez, alleged to have locked participants inside IVM “restoration” homes and used their government benefits for personal financial gain, entered his guilty plea along with three others to one count of conspiracy to commit benefits fraud.

The plea deal, accepted on August 8, included three other co-defendants who also pleaded guilty to benefits fraud. The three were Gonzalez’s wife, Susan Christine Gonzalez, along with Jose “Joe” Diaz and Mercedes Gonzales (Mercy Diaz).

Gonzalez was one of 12 IVM officials charged on September 10, 2019 by the federal administration for illegally using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits of over 30 individuals residing at IVM rehabilitation group homes in El Centro and Calexico.

The recent plea agreement includes a probable maximum of five years in prison for his role in conspiring to obtain, transfer, and misuse food stamp benefits in a violation of Food Stamp Regulations. Court records estimate the value of the food stamp benefits acquired by Gonzalez and his co-conspirators to be about $103,000. Court records also stated Gonzalez lived in a home for free, collected a weekly salary, and received an occasional “blessing” of $1,000.

Initially, IVM members persuaded participants to join them to receive shelter and free food with the assurance they would receive help and resources to get back on their feet. IVM’s public mission was to restore drug addicts at faith-based rehabilitation homes and raise money to build similar programs in other cities. However, many victims claimed IVM held them against their will. They stated that church leaders locked them inside group homes with deadbolt locks, nailed some property windows shut, and confiscated driver’s licenses, passports, immigration papers, and identification cards to prevent participants from escaping. 

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Furthermore, IVM obtained and used their Electronic Benefits Transaction cards acquired through SNAP and required participants to panhandle up to 54 hours a week on IVM’s behalf.

Then- U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said the original indictment alleged an “appalling abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable homeless people with promises of a warm bed and meals. These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity.”

According to the claim, IVM required them to sign agreements to adhere to rules, which included avoiding discussions on “things of the world,” never leaving the house unaccompanied, and not going to the front yard “unless told so by the counselor.” 

IVM operated a non-denominational church in El Centro and had opened about 30 affiliate churches throughout the United States and Mexico. In addition, IVM recruited many participants from outside El Centro, San Diego, and as far east as Texas. 

Gonzalez, his wife, and both Joe and Mercy Diaz will appear in court for sentencing on November 14.

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Jessica Eturralde

Jessica Eturralde is a military wife of 18 years and mother of three who serves as a freelance writer, TV host, and filmmaker. Bylines include Yahoo, Huffington Post, OC16TV.

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