Florida pastor arrested for $8M COVID relief fund scheme

A Florida pastor and his son are facing federal fraud charges after being arrested in connection with an alleged scheme that is believed to have generated millions from the COVID-19 relief fund.

Evan Edwards, 46, and his son Joshua Edwards, 30, were taken into custody from their home in New Smyrna, Florida, about 50 miles northeast of Orlando. Using the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), they are accused of defrauding the government of more than $8 million. As the Coronavirus pandemic swept across the country in March 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES ACT) was launched to combat the pandemic.

As part of the scheme, Joshua and Evan Edwards, Evan’s wife Mary Ann Edwards, and daughter Joy Edwards were implicated in a federal civil complaint filed in December 2020.

Evan Edwards, a Canadian born with the name Ian Heringa, had allegedly established the nonprofit Aslan International Ministry in Ohio in 2005. His ministry was based in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country, for many years before relocating to Florida.

Evan Edwards and Joshua Edwards allegedly began their federal aid fraud scheme on April 3, 2020, claiming they needed millions of dollars for payroll and other ministry expenses.

Prosecutors allege that nearly all of the defendants’ loan application, signed by Joshua Edwards on behalf of Aslan Ministry, is false, including claims that Aslan had over $2.7 million in average monthly payroll costs, 486 employees, and past annual revenues of $52 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2018. Despite seeking $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,” claims the complaint. It is likely that the “actual number of employees” at Aslan Ministry was “significantly lower [than 486], or entirely nonexistent.”

In addition, Aslan’s claimed annual revenues were also “significantly lower” than the claim of tens of millions of dollars, if not “entirely nonexistent.”

Furthermore, Evan and Josh Edwards allegedly lied on their loan application about how relief funds would be used.

The conspirators 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,” according to the complaint.

This luxury home was built by Disney World in a neighborhood and cost $3.7 million, court documents state.

Among the tax forms submitted by the Edwards family in support of the loan application was a signature purportedly attributed to W.G. When authorities located W.G. in Edmonton, they learned that he “is in his 70’s and has suffered from dementia since 2017,” says the complaint.

“Accordingly, an interview was conducted [through] his son while W.G. remained silent and unresponsive,” the complaint stated. “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.”

In September 2020, federal investigators began finding multiple clues that something was amiss: the Aslan Ministry offices in Florida, for example, were empty and did not appear to have ever been occupied when investigators visited the listed address. A search warrant executed a few days later revealed that the family’s New Smyrna Beach residence was similarly empty.

“The residence appeared to have been cleared out, and no persons or vehicles were located at the residence,” according to the complaint filed in 2020.

However, the Edwards’ family was found the next day when their Mercedes SUV was seen speeding on an interstate. The car was stopped by Florida authorities, and all four members were found inside. Evan said the family was on their way to Texas for a conference, but was unable to provide any further information.

In the next discovery, officials discovered a bag used to conceal mobile device signals so they could not be tracked:

Evan was sitting in the front passenger seat with an opened box containing a laser printer on his lap. There was also an open, dark-colored Faraday bag containing what appeared to be multiple laptops and tablets. The rear passenger seat contained two clear garbage bags containing what appeared to be shredded documents. The rear cargo area was stacked with suitcases, a document shredder, and other items. All but the front driver’s and passenger’s seats in the vehicle could be occupied, as well as the rear center seat and the rear passenger’s seat on the driver’s side. The rest of the vehicle was packed tight with backpacks and luggage.

A search of the vehicle revealed multiple backpacks containing external hard drives and USB drives, along with a shredder that had been purchased hours after U.S. The Edwards had been interviewed by Secret Service agents at their home, business records, financial documents, credit cards, and “laptops, tablets, and a SunPass transponder which were packed into another Faraday bag.”

Additionally, investigators found evidence that the Edwards had each received $2,000 from the Government of Canada for Covid-19 relief, as well as another attempt to apply for a PPP loan for Aslan. The family members were taken into custody on an unrelated immigration charge, but were released the following day.

In April 2021, the Justice Department announced that it had recovered $8.4 million from the family following the investigation.

The arrest of Evan and Josh Edwards comes five months after NBC News questioned why the family hadn’t been charged, despite the evidence presented in the 2020 complaint.

Evan and Josh Edwards were scheduled to appear in federal court in Orlando on Wednesday afternoon. The court records did not immediately reveal what happened in that appearance, and it was unclear whether the Edwardses had legal representation.

An attorney for the family and ministry represented in the 2020 civil complaint did not immediately respond to a request for comment.