The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kirbyjon Caldwell, famed Houston megachurch pastor, sold millions in worthless bonds, feds charge

President George W. Bush, left, shares a laugh with the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell during a fundraiser in Houston in 2003. (David J. Phillip/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

A Houston megachurch pastor and longtime spiritual adviser to President George W. Bush was indicted in federal court Thursday on claims that he sold more than $1 million in worthless Chinese bonds to vulnerable and elderly investors, some of whom lost their life savings to the alleged scheme.

A federal grand jury in Shreveport, La., returned a 13-count indictment accusing the Rev. Kirbyjon H. Caldwell and financial planner Gregory Alan Smith of wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy, prosecutors said in a news release.

The two men were also sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission in the same federal court on allegations that they violated financial laws.

According to prosecutors, Caldwell used his influence as the pastor of the 16,000-member Village United Methodist Church to dupe investors into buying historical Chinese bonds issued decades ago.

Caldwell and Smith, a 55-year-old who operates a Shreveport-based financial management firm, allegedly promised investors sky-high returns — sometimes 15 times what they invested — assuring them all along that they could be later sold for tens of millions of dollars.

In reality, prosecutors said, the bonds were collector’s items. “These bonds were issued by the former Republic of China prior to losing power to the communist government in 1949,” U.S. Attorney Alexander C. Van Hook said in a statement. “They are not recognized by China’s current government and have no investment value.”

Caldwell and Smith could not immediately be reached for comment Friday morning. It was not clear if they had retained defense attorneys or entered pleas.

In an age of Trump and Stormy Daniels, evangelical leaders face sex scandals of their own

The indictment and SEC lawsuit could mark a humiliating fall from grace for Caldwell, a prominent religious leader who long held the 43rd president’s ear as his closest spiritual adviser. After developing a friendship with Bush when he was the Texas governor, the 64-year-old pastor led the benediction at both of Bush’s inaugurations and officiated his daughter Jenna’s wedding in 2008. The same year, he endorsed President Barack Obama in his bid for the White House.

Caldwell, who started his career as an investment banker and bond broker, has led the Windsor Village church since 1982, when it had just 25 parishioners, according to the church’s website. In the time since, membership has swelled into the tens of thousands. Caldwell has also launched community development projects in the Houston area, including schools, an AIDS outreach center and a nutrition program.

His financial background has long played a role in his ministry. His 1999 book, “The Gospel of Good Success: A Road Map to Spiritual, Emotional and Financial Wholeness,” discusses how he transformed his megachurch into a “Kingdom-building machine” and advises readers on how to “create wealth God’s way,” among other things.

“This is not a get-rich-quick scheme,” Caldwell told the Dallas Morning News in a 1999 interview about the book. “It’s about being faithful to God and receiving what God has for you,” he said, and being “a blessing on God’s terms to others.”

Historical bond schemes like the one Caldwell and Smith are alleged to have orchestrated are a common, if unsophisticated, tool for scam artists, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. Railroad bonds and other types of historical bonds are traded among niche collectors, but they are worthless as securities and without value as investments.

According to court documents from the SEC posted by ABC13, Caldwell and Smith lured in 29 investors, most of them vulnerable and elderly, telling some they stood to rake in exorbitant returns in a matter of weeks.

Smith, who had years of experience as a financial planner, told investors that the bonds were “risk free” and “guaranteed” and that he had invested some $250,000 in them himself, the SEC complaint states. Once someone agreed to invest, Caldwell would have them wire money to an associate or to a company he and his wife controlled in Wyoming, according to the complaint.

Some people gutted their annuities to invest in the bonds, officials said. In one instance, Smith told an investor who put up $800,000 that the bonds were backed by gold or silver, when in fact the bonds were in default and no liquid market existed for them, according to the SEC complaint.

“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 reads.

When the pair failed to provide investors with the promised payouts, they invented elaborate excuses for why they had been unable to sell them, officials alleged.

“Instead of investing the funds, the defendants used them to pay personal loans, credit card balances, mortgages, vehicle purchases and other expenses,” Van Hook, the prosecutor, said.

Caldwell and Smith each face up to 20 years in prison on the wire fraud counts and 10 years for the money laundering counts, as well as a $1 million fine.

More from Morning Mix:

Austin police chief changes mind, labels bombing suspect a ‘domestic terrorist’

‘Landmark ruling’: A woman is sent to prison in South Africa for using racial epithet

NHL stunner: A 36-year-old accountant who has never played pro stars in Blackhawks win