Leaders of a fraudulent ministry have been charged with receiving over $8 million in COVID-19 pandemic relief funds by lying about the size of their religious nonprofit, allegedly using the funds to put a downpayment on a mansion in Central Florida.
Evan Edwards, 64, and his son Joshua Edwards, 30, natives of Canada who were both residents of New Smyrna Beach, were charged with six counts related to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and visa fraud last Thursday.
Both men were charged with conspiracy to commit bank fraud, bank fraud and visa fraud. Joshua Edwards was charged with making false statements to a lending institution, the U.S. Department of Justice announced in a statement.
According to the indictment, the father and son submitted a fraudulent Paycheck Protection Program loan application to an FDIC-insured lending institution on behalf of Aslan International Ministry, a "not-for-profit corporation that purportedly provided religious services."
Prosecutors said false claims were made in the PPP loan application, stating that ASLAN had 486 employees even though the actual number of employees was "significantly lower, or entirely nonexistent."
The application also claimed that ASLAN had average monthly payroll expenses of over $2.7 million, which authorities say was also much lower or "entirely nonexistent." As a result of the false claims, the defendants received PPP loan proceeds totaling over $8.4 million.
"The conspirators intended to use the PPP loan proceeds for unauthorized purposes, including for a down payment of the attempted purchase of a multi-million dollar residence for themselves," the court filing reads.
Both men face a maximum punishment of 30 years in prison if convicted on the fraud charges and a maximum punishment of 10 years per count if found guilty of visa fraud.
Joshua Edwards also could face a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison if found guilty of the false statement offense.
Prosecutors say that Evan and Joshua Edwards also made "a materially false statement" on immigration documents, including Form I-485 Applications to Register as Permanent Resident or Adjust Status.
"The purpose of PPP loans was to help small businesses that were suffering from economic downturn to continue to pay salary or wages to their employees," the DOJ statement reads. "The Department of Justice remains vigilant in detecting, investigating, and prosecuting wrongdoing related to the crisis."
The investigation into the Edwards family began in late 2020, with Evan Edwards' wife and daughter being named in the criminal complaint but not presently charged, reported The Washington Post.
According to ClickOrlando.com, the ministry was founded in 2005 in Ohio. They filed an application to conduct business in Florida as a foreign nonprofit in 2018. Joshua Edwards was listed as president, and Evan Edwards was vice president. Other family members were listed on the staff as well. All four family members involved in the case are reportedly in Canada.
Evan and Joshua Edwards were arrested last Wednesday, with Evan Edwards being pushed in a wheelchair, according to WESH-2.
After being taken to a federal courthouse, Joshua Edwards reportedly would not respond to questions from the judge, while Evan Edwards was taken to a medical facility by U.S. marshals.
Since the PPP program was enacted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, others have tried to use the guise of religious ministry in their attempts to defraud taxpayers.
In April 2021, Rudolph Brooks Jr., founder and senior pastor of the Kingdom Tabernacle of Restoration Ministries in Washington, D.C., was charged with fraudulently obtaining over $1.5 million from the PPP, which he allegedly used on personal expenses, including buying 39 cars.