Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell of Houston's Windsor Village United Methodist Church has been indicted along with a Louisiana financial planner, Gregory Alan Smith.
The pair is accused of defrauding 29 investors, most of whom are elderly, by convincing the victims to purchase Chinese bonds issued prior to the country's 1949 revolution — which in truth, only have collector's value. According to the SEC, the total amount swindled from the investors is around $3.4 million.
Caldwell is head of one of the largest churches in the US, boasting a congregation of over 17,000 members as of 2013. The alleged fraud occurred between April 2013 and April 2014.
Smith was formerly accused of misappropriating other investors' funds years ago, and was permanently barred from associating with broker-dealers in 2010.
Some investors liquidated their assets completely to purchase the bonds — after Smith and Caldwell told them they would see returns within a matter of weeks — and were assured after the pair told them to "remain faithful," according to the SEC. But when the returns never came, the pastor and financial advisor started providing elaborate excuses.
While Caldwell insisted that "These bonds are legitimate, the process is legitimate. I fully maintain that the accusation is baseless," he is further accused of using investors' funds for his own person use — even to pay his mortgage.
According to The Daily Mail, Caldwell and Smith face "six counts of wire fraud, four counts of money laundering, and one count each of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering." If convicted, they could be forced to pay restitution, forfeit assets, serve up to 20 years in prison and be met with fines of up to $1 million.
Pastor Caldwell has served as a spiritual leader to former President George W. Bush, officiating over his daughter Jenna's wedding and giving benedictions at both the president's inaugurations.
The preacher's lawyer took to Twitter on Thursday, maintaining Caldwell's innocence, saying, "Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell is a religious leader who has been falsely accused. He trusts the legal process completely but most importantly his faith. He will be absolved. We look forward to trying this case in the Court of law."
Major League Baseball's Houston Texans were also compelled to react to the charges against Caldwell, who is a limited partner in the franchise. In a statement, the team acknowledged, "We have recently been made aware of a report involving Kirbyjon Caldwell. We are gathering more information and will have no further comment at this time."