A Florida pastor and his son are facing federal fraud charges after being arrested for an alleged scheme that yielded millions from federal COVID-19 relief funds.
Evan Edwards and his son Joshua Edwards, 30, were taken into custody Wednesday from their home in New Smyrna, Florida, a coastal city some 50 miles northeast of Orlando. They are accused of attempting to bilk the government out of more than $8 million dollars in funds through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which was launched as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES ACT) in March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold throughout the country.
The arrest comes almost two years after a federal civil complaint was filed in December 2020 implicating the entire family — Joshua, Evan, Evan’s wife Mary Ann Edwards, and daughter Joy Edwards — in the scheme.
Evan Edwards, who was born in Canada with the name Ian Heringa, had allegedly established the nonprofit Aslan International Ministry in Ohio in 2005. For years, he ran a Christian ministry operation in Turkey, a predominately Muslim country, before relocating to Florida.
Evan and Joshua Edwards allegedly began their federal aid fraud scheme as early as April 3, 2020, claiming that they needed millions of dollars in funds for payroll and other operating costs for the ministry.
According to prosecutors, nearly everything on the defendants’ loan application — signed by Joshua Edwards on behalf Aslan Ministry — was a lie, including claims that Aslan had more than $2.7 million in average monthly payroll costs, 486 employees, and past annual revenues of nearly $52 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2018. Although the application requested $6.9 million in loans, they were ultimately granted $8.4 million, according to court documents.
“[I]n truth and fact, as the conspirators then and there well knew, ASLAN’s average monthly payroll expenses were significantly lower,” the complaint says. This is likely because the “actual number of employees” at Aslan Ministry was “significantly lower [than 486], or entirely nonexistent.”
Aslan’s claimed annual revenues were also “significantly lower” than the tens of millions of dollars claim, if not “entirely nonexistent.”
Evan and Josh Edwards also allegedly lied on the loan application about how the relief funds would be used.
They made a “false certification in the PPP loan application that ‘[t]he funds will be used to retain workers and maintain payroll or make mortgage payments, lease payments, and utility payments,’ when in truth and in fact, as the conspirators then and there well knew, 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 complaint says.
According to court documents, that luxury home was located in a neighborhood built by Disney World and came with a price tag of $3.7 million.
Tax forms submitted by the Edwards family in support of the loan application were purportedly signed by someone identified only as W.G. When authorities were able to reach W.G. in Edmonton, they learned from W.G.’s son that W.G. “is in his 70’s and has suffered from dementia since 2017,” the complaint said.
“Accordingly, an interview was conducted [through] his son while W.G. remained silent and unresponsive,” the complaint said. “W.G.’s son stated that his father has known Heringa (Evan Edwards) for many years, and had dome some accounting for ASLAN in the past, but nothing since at least 2017 due to his mental state.”
Starting in September 2020, federal investigators had found multiple clues that something was amiss: the Aslan Ministry offices in Florida, for example, were empty and showed no signs of ever having been occupied when investigators went to the listed address in September 2020. The family residence in New Smyrna Beach was similarly empty when agents executed a search warrant at the house days later.
“The residence appeared to have been cleared out, and no persons or vehicles were located at the residence,” the 2020 complaint said.
The family was found the next day, however, when the Edwards’ car — a Mercedes SUV — was spotted speeding on an interstate. Florida authorities pulled the car over, and found all four members inside. Evan said that the family was on the way to Texas for a conference, but could not provide any specifics.
What officials found next sounds like something out of a movie, complete with a bag used for concealing signals from mobile devices so they could not be traced:
Evan was in the front passenger seat with an opened box containing a laser printer on his lap. Also in plain view was an open, dark colored Faraday bag containing what appeared to be multiple laptops and tablets. In the rear passenger seat were two clear garbage bags containing what appeared to be shredded documents. In the rear cargo area, multiple suitcases were stacked from floor to the ceiling, along with a document shredder. The only viable seats in the vehicle that could be occupied were the front driver and passenger seats along with the rear driver side passenger seat and the rear center seat. The remainder of the vehicle was packed tightly with back packs and luggage.
A search of the vehicle revealed multiple backpacks containing external hard drives and USB drives, a shredder with a receipt showing it was purchased hours after U.S. Secret Service agents had tried to interview the Edwards at their home, business records, financial documents, credit cards, and “laptops, tablets, and a SunPass transponder which were packed into a Faraday bag inside another Faraday bag.”
Investigators also found evidence that the Edwards had each received $2,000 for Covid-19 relief from the Government of Canada, as well as another attempt to apply for yet another PPP loan for Aslan. The family members were taken into custody on an unrelated immigration charge, but released the next day.
Nevertheless, the investigation yielded results for the government: in April 2021, the Justice Department announced that it had recovered $8.4 million from the family.
According to NBC News, the arrest of Evan and Josh Edwards comes five months after a report by the network raised questions as to why the family hadn’t been charged, despite the evidence presented in the 2020 complaint.
Evan and Josh Edwards were scheduled to make their first court appearance in federal court in Orlando on Wednesday afternoon. Court records did not immediately reveal what happened in that appearance, and it was not immediately clear if the Edwardses had legal representation.
A Texas-based attorney who represented family members and the ministry in the 2020 civil complaint did not immediately respond to Law&Crime’s request for comment.
Read the indictment here.
[Image via screengrab/WKMG]
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