- Associated Press - Saturday, April 5, 2014

FLORENCE, Colo. (AP) - A tight-knit Colorado church community is campaigning to free six businessmen who were convicted of fraud because of the way they kept their firm going as they tried to market crime-fighting software to the New York Police Department, the Department of Homeland Security and others.

The Colorado Springs Fellowship Church argues that the group headed by software developer Gary Walker - like all six a church member - is the victim of a conspiracy.

But federal prosecutors contended - and a judge agreed - that it’s Walker who masterminded a conspiracy in which 42 companies he hired to handle his payroll were deceived into working with him for free as he tried to sell his software.

The companies lost more than $5 million. Prosecutors said more businesses could have been targeted if the FBI hadn’t raided Walker’s Colorado Springs business, IRP, for Investigative Resource Planning, in 2005.

Walker and his colleagues were convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud, mail fraud and wire fraud. All were sent to prison in 2012, with Walker receiving more than an 11-year sentence.

Church members and relatives, some of whom loaned or gave money to Walker for his business, are waging a publicity campaign on behalf of the men they call the IRP6.

In March, about 50 protesters demonstrated outside a downtown Denver hotel where the U.S. district judge who sentenced Walker, Christine Arguello, was being honored for her career by the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.

IRP6 supporters said it rankled them to see Arguello lauded. Their protests have taken a personal tone, with campaigners digging into the professional backgrounds of the judge and prosecutors in search of connections they see as suspicious, and calling for a court clerk to face charges because they claim passages from the trial transcript are missing. They point to lack of media interest in the case as a sign of a possible larger conspiracy involving journalists.

Rose Banks, the pastor who leads the Fellowship Church and Walker’s mother-in-law, said she was glad her husband, a Vietnam veteran, died before the trial. Her son David Banks, Walker’s chief operations officer, was also sentenced to more than 11 years.

“It looked as if the time he gave to the military was wasted,” she said of her husband. “His own son wasn’t treated fairly.”

Supporters also say they wonder whether the men faced special scrutiny because of their race. Walker and four others convicted in the case are black, the sixth is white.

For some IT entrepreneurs, race can be a factor in their efforts to get investors to back their businesses, said Angela Benton, who founded NewME Accelerator as an incubator for minority entrepreneurs.

Black IT entrepreneurs often struggle because investors looking for the next sure thing hunt for profiles that match already successful businesses, which can leave out people who don’t look like Mark Zuckerberg or who did not attend Stanford, said Benton, who is not involved with IRP or the IRP case.

When Benton read about the IRP6, she sensed a scrappy refusal to take no for an answer in Walker’s makeup.

“Not to condone what they did,” Benton said. “But they were showing a lot of the characteristics a lot of entrepreneurs have.”

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