Prosecutors: Family used sham ministry to get COVID loans

ORLANDO, Fla. – Family members who ran a sham ministry have been charged with defrauding the federal government of COVID-19 relief funds in a scheme to buy a $3.7 million luxury home in a development at Walt Disney World, authorities said.

Evan Edwards, 64, and his 30-year-old son, Joshua Edwards, were arrested Wednesday on charges of bank fraud, conspiracy, making a false statement to a lending institution and visa fraud, according to a six-count federal indictment.

An online docket for the federal court in central Florida didn’t list an attorney Thursday who could speak on behalf of the Edwardses in their criminal case.

The criminal charges come more than 1 1/2 years after the federal government obtained a civil judgment ordering the Edwardses to forfeit $8.4 million related to COVID relief fraud. Federal prosecutors said at the time they had defrauded the Small Business Administration out of millions of dollars in relief funds on behalf of ASLAN International Ministry Inc.

The civil judgment named two other family members who weren’t charged criminally. The family resides in New Smyrna Beach, about 15 miles (25 kilometers) south of Daytona Beach.

According to prosecutors, the family used the loaned money to try buying the luxury home at the Four Seasons residential community at Disney World and deposited the rest of the funds in bank accounts in an attempt to hide their whereabouts.

According to the criminal indictment, the proceeds of the loan obtained through the Paycheck Protection Program could be used only for payroll costs, health care benefits, rent or interest payments on debt in order to keep a business afloat during the worse period of the pandemic.

In their loan application, the Edwards claimed that ASLAN had average monthly payroll expenses of $2.7 million for 486 employees and annual revenue in 2019 of $51 million. In reality, its monthly payroll expenses and revenues were “significantly lower, or entirely nonexistent,” the indictment said.

The visa fraud charges stem from the Edwardses, who are Canadian, making false statements in June on their applications for permanent resident status, according to prosecutors.