A family-run religious ministry in Florida that claimed to have 486 employees and received $8.4 million through the federal government’s multibillion dollar coronavirus relief program for small businesses, known as the Paycheck Protection Program, has been found to be a fake operation, authorities say.
ASLAN International Ministry was not involved in any religious work and the only people found to be associated with the project were four members of the same family, according to a civil forfeiture complaint filed in U.S District Court in Orlando cited by CNBC.
Court records show that the family tried to spend some of the funds on a $3.71 million house in Disney World’s Golden Oak neighborhood and were eventually nabbed on the run by authorities.
Joshua Edwards, who was listed as a vice president in the fake Orlando-based ministry, submitted documents for the loan program and painted it as a successful operation with a monthly payroll of $2.76 million and revenue of more than $51 million in 2019, the Orlando Sentinel reported. He also presented IRS forms and a cover letter from an accountant that showed summaries of ASLAN’s bank accounts. The accounting firm had the same address as ASLAN and banks listed on the letter later told federal authorities the ministry didn’t hold the accounts with them.
The U.S. Secret Service seized more than $7.5 million from accounts at Bank of America and another $868,000 from First American Trust from ASLAN International Ministry, CNBC reported.
“The perpetrators of the fraud attempted to conceal the source, nature and location of the bank fraud proceeds by moving the proceeds through numerous bank accounts, held in different names,” the complaint said.
Besides Joshua Edwards, his father, Evan Edwards, was listed as president of ASLAN while his sister, Joy, was listed as secretary on state business records.
Home Bank reportedly approved and closed on ASLAN’s PPP loan in May and wired the funds into an account that previously held a balance of only $25, court documents note. The funds were later wired into several bank accounts held under the names of Joshua, Evan, Joy and Mary Jane Edwards, Evan’s wife.
Federal agents discovered that ASLAN wasn’t a real religious organization after discovering empty office space on North Orange Blossom Trail where the ministry claimed to have its headquarters.
ASLAN’s website also only had “generic religious information” which was plagiarized from other websites. As authorities continued their investigation, the entire website was deactivated.
Federal authorities also found that the man who signed off on ASLAN’s IRS forms hadn’t done accounting for ASLAN since 2017, can’t speak and has dementia.
They eventually went to Joshua Edwards' home in New Smyrna Beach on Sept. 16 and discovered it was cleared out.
“The residence appeared to have been cleared out and no persons or vehicles were located at the residence,” the federal complaint said.
The family of four was nabbed in September after Florida Highway Patrol stopped a vehicle for speeding along I-75, CNBC noted.
In the car, authorities found external hard drives, a document shredder, multiple credit and gift cards, laptops as well as a handwritten note that the Department of Homeland Security had frozen their bank account, the report said. Electronic items seized during the arrest include a government research manual called “Tracing Money Flows Through Financial Institutions” and news articles about SBA loan fraud investigations.
Under the PPP, which closed on Aug. 8, as long as a church employed 500 people or fewer, it could request a federal loan for an amount 2.5 times its average monthly payroll. The loans, along with a 1% interest, would be forgiven by the government as long as 75% of the funds are used to cover payroll expenses in the eight weeks after the house of worship receives the funds. The remaining 25% can be spent on rent, utilities, insurance and other operating costs.
Some 75% of Christian churches and organizations that applied for and received forgivable loans under the federal government’s coronavirus relief program for small businesses, said the loans helped keep their operations fully staffed and many of them have already been forgiven, The Christian Post recently reported.