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Houston Pastor Pleads Guilty in $3.5M Bond Fraud Scheme Targeting Elderly

Kirbyjon Caldwell has led the UMC’s biggest African American megachurch for decades.
Houston Pastor Pleads Guilty in $3.5M Bond Fraud Scheme Targeting Elderly
Image: Martinez Monsivais / AP

Kirbyjon Caldwell, the Houston entrepreneur-turned-pastor who leads one of the largest United Methodist congregations in the country, faces a prison sentence and punishment from his denomination after pleading guilty to a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme.

As a part of a plea deal in US District Court in Louisiana last Wednesday, Caldwell agreed to repay nearly $2 million as restitution to victims before his sentencing in July. He faces 5–7 years in prison and a fine of up to a quarter million dollars.

Windsor Village, a 18,000-member African American megachurch, stood by Caldwell when he was first indicted on conspiracy charges two years ago. He was accused of selling $3.5 million in worthless Chinese bonds to the elderly.

The UMC allowed Caldwell to continue to lead under the indictment, but he will now fall under church discipline.

Caldwell preached the week before his plea and appeared in a promotional clip for last Sunday’s worship service, but the livestream of the gathering instead featured a sermon he preached back in January.

The church has not publicly addressed its senior pastor’s recent plea.

Caldwell had maintained his innocence, even when his alleged co-conspirator, a Shreveport investment adviser, pleaded guilty last year. His third request to postpone his trial was denied earlier this month.

Caldwell’s attorney, Dan Cogdell, said the pastor believed the “historic” Chinese bonds were legitimate investment opportunities (rather than worthless mementos) and never intended to defraud anyone. According to prosecutors, Caldwell used the “investment” money to pay off personal loans, including mortgages and credit card debt.

The US Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana accused Caldwell and the investor of using their positions to trick elderly victims into trusting them. “My office will continue to vigorously prosecute those who use confidence schemes to prey upon the elderly and people of faith,” David C. Joseph said.

The UMC Book of Discipline lists commission of a crime as a chargeable offense, and regional conference leadership said that following his plea, the disciplinary process will begin immediately.

“I am deeply saddened by this admission of guilt,” Texas Conference Bishop Scott Jones said in a statement to the United Methodist News Service last week. “This now triggers a disciplinary process. We do not tolerate crimes being committed by our clergy, and it is now clear that Kirbyjon Caldwell has violated our standards of conduct.”

Well-connected and financially successful, Caldwell is known locally for his community development work in Houston over the past 30 years, investing millions into his neighborhood and ministry. On a national level, he served as a spiritual adviser to presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Caldwell’s legal issues occurred in the midst of ongoing debates on whether his congregation should remain affiliated with the UMC and how it might be affected by a potential denominational split. Windsor Village had been the UMC’s biggest congregation for years (Kansas’s Church of the Resurrection now reports more members), and it’s still its largest African American congregation.

The church discussed and prayed over potentially leaving the UMC in 2018. Caldwell’s other two entities, Kingdom Builders and The Power Center, are not affiliated with the denomination and have their own boards and leadership.

Just 1 percent of Americans who identify as United Methodist are black, according to Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape survey.

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