ORLANDO, Fla. – A family operating as a foreign ministry in Orlando is accused of fraudulently obtaining more than $8.4 million in federal coronavirus relief aid and high-tailing it back to Canada when U.S. Secret Service agents became aware they were attempting to buy a multi-million dollar home near Disney World.
A company called ASLAN International Ministry applied for funds as part of the federal CARES Act dedicated to helping small businesses and nonprofits struggling during the coronavirus pandemic, known as the Paycheck Protection Program. More than $300 billion of CARES Act funding was set aside to grant forgivable small business loans to help pay employees and other business expenses.
Federal documents show Joshua Edwards applied for a PPP loan in April on behalf of ASLAN International Ministries. U.S. Secret Service agents allege he used fabricated and/or fake documents to obtain more than $8.4 million in PPP funding.
Federal court filings show the Edwards family is being investigated by the U.S. Secret Service for fraud and how they used the PPP funds, however, all four family members allegedly involved are back in Canada.
“We can neither confirm or deny the existence of an investigation until, or unless, an individual or entity is formally charged [federally],” U.S. Secret Service Special Agent in Charge Caroline O’Brien-Buster said in an email. “However, the American people and particularly those small business owners who are suffering can rest assured that the Secret Service, the Small Business Administration and our Cyber Fraud Task Forces are proactively identifying and investigating any individual or entity that fraudulently obtained a SBA loan.”
The ministry was founded in Ohio in 2005 and in 2018 filed an application to conduct business in Florida as a foreign nonprofit corporation. Joshua Edwards was listed as the chairman and president of the organization, while his son, Evan Edwards, was listed as the vice president. Joy Edwards, Evan Edwards’ daughter, was listed in the documents as a secretary and director, documents show. Joshua Edwards’ wife, May Edwards, was also listed on court documents.
In May, ASLAN International Ministry received the PPP loan and then wired it to another bank account. Prior to the $8.4 million deposit, the account had $25, records show. Secret Services agents said the funds were moved into three bank accounts. Joshua Edwards, Joy Edwards and Evan Edwards were all account holders, documents show. Prior to the multi-million dollar deposits, all three accounts had $100.
Legal documents filed in the U.S. District Court Middle District of Florida in Orlando show things began to unravel for the Edwards family when they attempted to purchase a home near Disney World property on Symphony Grove Drive.
The U.S. government seized more than $5.6 million from a Bank of America account held in the name of Church of Florida, Inc., $1.8 million from another BoA account under the same name and more than $868,250 from a First American Trust FSB account under First American Title insurance company.
In July, $868,250 was transferred to an account in the name of First American Title Insurance Company. According to the affidavit, the money was to purchase a $3.7 million home on Symphony Grove Drive in Orlando. Mary Edwards was the only person on the purchase contract, according to the title company.
According to the ministry’s most recent filings, the ASLAN business address was listed as 5104 N. Orange Blossom Trail No. 115. Secret Service agents visited the address and found no one there, records show. On Sept. 7, neighbors told agents they hadn’t seen anyone at the location or any signs it was occupied.
Agents reviewed the ministry’s website and believe it contained generic religious information taken from other websites. The websites were taken down around Sept. 12. Agents believe it’s because the family realized they were being investigated by the Secret Service and the Edmonton Police Service in Canada.
Agents also visited the family’s home in New Smyrna Beach to speak with them for the investigation but no one was home.
When agents conducted a federal search warrant to the family home on Sept. 16 in New Smyrna Beach, believed to be occupied by Evan, Mary, Josh and Joy Edwards, officers found it had been cleared out. No one was at the residence.
Neighbors told authorities the last time anyone was at the home was Sept. 9. Neighbors also reported Evan and Josh Edwards came to their home on Sept. 8 and asked them if U.S. Secret Service agents had interviewed them.
When the family was stopped on Sept. 17 by a Florida Highway Patrol trooper on I-75 for speeding, Josh, Evan, Mary and Joy were all inside. They told the trooper they were going to Texas for a conference but could not give any specific details, investigators say.
A federal search warrant was issued for the vehicle. Inside the car, agents found the U.S. Secret Service agent’s card and a letter from the Department of Homeland Security notifying the family their accounts had been frozen.
Agents found garbage bags filled with shredded documents in the car and the vehicle was loaded with suitcases and luggage as well as multiple laptops and tablets. The shredder had been purchased at Costco on Sept. 8, two hours after agents had attempted to interview the family in New Smyrna.
Agents also found evidence the Edwards had applied for a similar COVID-19 relief loan in Canada and received $2,000 each.
All four of the Edwards family members are in Canada, where they are also under investigation. The PPP money was seized and recovered.