A former religious adviser to President George W. Bush has been accused by federal prosecutors of defrauding investors of $3.5 million.
Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell and a business partner, Gregory Smith, sold millions of dollars of worthless Chinese bonds, telling investors to "remain faithful and that they would receive their money," according to documents obtained by ABC Houston station KTRK.
Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Western District of Louisiana announced the 13-count indictment Thursday.
Both men could face significant jail time and be forced to forfeit assets. Caldwell and Smith both face 20 years in prison for the conspiracy to commit wire fraud count and for the wire fraud counts, according to the prosecutor. They face 10 additional years in prison for the conspiracy to commit money laundering count and the money laundering counts.
Caldwell's lawyer Dan Cogdell tweeted out a statement that said his client was "falsely accused" and "would be absolved."
Cogdell spoke to KTRK on Friday and said Caldwell believed the bonds were legitimate.
"I know Kirbyjon, the community knows him well. ... He's an icon in the Houston area and he's 100 percent, absolutely innocent of these charges," Cogdell said. "He absolutely believed these bonds were worth -- in fact, he believed these bonds were worth more than he sold them for. He was the biggest investor in these bonds."
The court documents state that Caldwell and Smith raised at least $3,488,500 from about 29 investors between April 2013 and August 2014.
Caldwell told KTRK in an exclusive interview on Friday, "Everyone who's asked for their money back to date has received their money back. I've got evidence here that the bonds are legitimate."
Cogdell said investors who have requested their money back have been refunded nearly $1 million.
They reportedly told would-be investors that the Chinese bonds "were safe, risk-free, worth tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars," when really they were "mere collectible memorabilia with no investment value," the complaint states.
Caldwell, 64, and Smith, 55, did not tell the investors that the funds they would be using their money for personal expenses, according to the court documents.
The prosecutors said that the defendants used the money that they solicited to buy vehicles, pay off credit card balances and mortgages, among other personal expenses.
"Although many investors did not understand the investment, they ultimately trusted Smith and took comfort in the fact that a high-profile pastor was offering the investment," the complaint states.
When pressed by investors about how long it would take to see returns on their investments, the pair reportedly offered a range of excuses that included delays caused by the International Monetary Fund or World Bank and issues related to international currency exchanges, the filing states.
"I will beat these charges like a rented mule," Cogdell said.
Caldwell's presidential pal
Caldwell was known both within his community through his megachurch and in the national political sphere because of his ties to the former president.
Caldwell first got to know Bush when he was the governor of Texas and went on to participate in the 2000 Republican National Convention.
Though he said he was a political independent, Caldwell touted Bush's work as governor, specifically noting Bush's hiring of minorities and his belief in closing the gap of economic segregation.
"The governor's plan will help ensure that this God-given rising economic tide will not only lift more boats but will repair the leaking boats as well," Caldwell said during his RNC speech.
His ties to the Bush family continued through his presidential administration, starting when he offered the benediction at the 2001 inauguration and continuing to 2008 when he officiated Jenna Bush Hager's wedding at the family's Crawford, Texas, ranch.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Caldwell’s name. It has since been corrected.