Feds target Westminster church suspected of swindling $25 million from Vietnamese investors
A “virtual church” operating out of a Westminster strip mall has been shut down amid an FBI investigation into two pastors accused of orchestrating a $25 million Ponzi scheme that swindled hundreds of Vietnamese investors.
The two clergymen with The Church for the Healthy Self are suspected of using funds from investors to purchase Rolex watches, a Bentley automobile, Gucci apparel and guns, and to pay rent ranging from $7,500 to $11,000 a month for various Newport Beach properties, according to court records.
Earlier this month, a U.S. District Court judge, acting on a motion from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, froze the assets of the church, which operated in a Little Saigon strip mall until it closed March 14.
Behind the church’s locked doors Friday, a stack of Bibles sat on a table in front of a black leather sofa. Resting next to a big-screen TV was a poster touting the church’s 2019 Fairway to Heaven celebrity golf tournament, held in January at the ritzy Pelican Hill Golf Club in Newport Beach.
An SEC complaint says self-described pastor Kent R.E. Whitney, 37, of Newport Beach founded the Church for the Healthy Self in 2014, three months after completing a 44-month prison sentence for scamming more than $600,000 from 10 investors as part of a $96 million commodities scam.
David Lee Parrish, 47, of Newport Beach, who allegedly assisted Whitney in the commodities scheme, served as co-pastor of the Church for the Healthy Self, the complaint says.
Whitney and Parrish have not been charged with any crimes, but are being investigated by the FBI, said Kyra Andrassy, an attorney with a Costa Mesa law firm hired by a court-appointed receiver to identify victims and assets.
Whitney and Parrish could not be reached for comment. Ken White, an attorney representing Whitney, declined to discuss the SEC complaint.
$4.4 million recovered
Since the church’s assets were frozen, the FBI has recovered about $4.4 million from its bank accounts. The alleged scheme appears to have targeted older Vietnamese investors in Westminster and San Jose.
“These investors may now be without any funds to pay bills like their mortgages, utility bills, insurance and other costs of living,” the complaint states. “Some investors appear to have all of their money at risk.”
According to court records, Whitney became an ordained minister in August 2014 through an online program. A month later, he formed the Church for the Healthy Self.
The SEC described it as a “virtual church” with a website that provides links to YouTube channels offering religious videos and online prayer requests forms.
“Church for the Healthy Self does not hold religious services typically associated with churches,” the complaint says. “The primary mission of the church appears to be obtaining investor funds.”
‘Special connection with God’
The church’s investment strategy seems to center around clergy who purport to have a “special connection with God,” according to the complaint.
“One program provides for a donation of an investors monthly gain to a charity of the investor’s choice, and there is evidence that some payments were actually made, no doubt to establish credibility,” court records state. “There is also a prayer line where investors can call and pray with a sympathetic individual.”
Using YouTube videos and advertising on Vietnamese television and radio stations in Orange County, Whitney and Parrish promised investors annual tax deductible returns of up to 43 percent.
“Investors were told that their money would grow tax-exempt and they could use their contributions to have the Church for the Healthy Self pay their mortgages and other bills,” said Andrassy, the Costa Mesa attorney with law firm of Smiley Wang-Ekvall.
Contributors also were offered a $100 bonus for each $10,000 of investments generated through referring friends and family, according to the SEC complaint.
“While there may have been a smattering of legitimate investments, it appears that any payouts or returns came from more recent investors,” Andrassy said, describing what amounts to a Ponzi scheme.
Authorities searched residences where Parrish and Whitney received mail and recovered an assault rifle with two large clips and a laser scope, a rapid-fire Uzi pistol with a silencer, pistols and several recreational guns, records show.
Jewelry, clothing, computers, sports equipment, three cellphones and more than $53,000 in cash also were seized. Authorities also have identified at least three homes that appear to have been transferred from donors to the church.
“The stories from investors are heartbreaking,” Andrassy said. “We talked to some who gave everything to the church. The old adage is true — if it appears to be too good to be true, it probably is.”
Anyone who believes they have been victimized in the alleged scam is asked to contact the receivership of the Church for the Healthy Self at www.donlinrecano.com/Clients/mosier/Index or call the FBI at 310-477-6565.