SHREVEPORT, La. – The former senior pastor of a Houston megachurch soon will be trading the pulpit for a jail cell after being sentenced Wednesday to six years in prison for bilking investors out of millions of dollars.
Kirbyjon H. Caldwell is ordered to report on June 22.
Caldwell was indicted in federal court on wire fraud and money laundering charges. He pleaded guilty in March to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with the fraud that also involved Shreveport investment adviser Gregory Alan Smith, 55, who in November was sentenced to six years in prison.
Caldwell, 67, pastor of the 16,000-member Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, had previously pleaded not guilty. He appeared in person before Chief District Judge Maury Hicks. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, attendance inside the courtroom was restricted. However, a secondary courtroom was set up for observers. Additionally, others were allowed to view the proceedings via Zoom. Recordings were prohibited.
Caldwell faced a sentencing range of five to seven years, which was lowered from the initial amount because of Caldwell's plea agreement and lack of a criminal history. Hicks said he received a number of letters filed on behalf of and in support of Caldwell. He also viewed a roughly one-hour video presentation submitted by Caldwell.
Before he learned his fate, Caldwell apologized to his victims, his family, his church and the community.
"I am humbled for opportunity to express remorse for actions that have hurt and harmed so many people. First and foremost, I apologize to victims for the undeserved financial harm, emotional distress, emotional pain and flat out inconvenience caused by my actions. … They trusted me with their money and I abused the trust. I misled them. … As a result of my actions, good people lost hard-earned money. Retirement funds were used, mortgages and other important bills went unpaid. And things victims wanted to do for their families and friends just went undone."
Caldwell added: "The harm I caused went well beyond dollars and cents. The victims experiences sleepless nights, anxiety, sorry, worry and distress. … I wish I could undue damage, and I take full responsibly for my actions. ... I know the refunds cannot undue the harms, but I hope in some way it eased their burdens."
One of Caldwell's victims, identified by initials and number, didn't mince words when expressing her disgust of the Caldwell's actions. She called him "evil," and said he is a "disgrace."
"Greed has no boundaries. ... As a pastor you are called to a higher standard," the woman said, adding she was grateful he was going to be "taken from society for a period of time."
Caldwell's attorney, Karima G Maloney, spoke on his behalf in urging the court to consider home confinement instead of imprisonment for the pastor who is suffering a number of health problems, including prostate cancer, blindness in one eye and hypertension. A prison sentence would put him at risk of death or exposure to COVID-19, she said.
"Regrettably, he’s brought disgrace on his character and caused tremendous harm to the victims," Maloney said. "I'm confident he recognizes the gravity of the seriousness of the crime he and Smith caused. He is extremely remorseful. He has worked tirelessly to make victims whole again. He asks for forgiveness from the victims."
Maloney read a list of Caldwell's accomplishments and community success. She also pointed out that Caldwell made it personal mission to make the victims whole without the assistance of Smith. Caldwell repaid the victims over $4.3 million, which is in excess of the $3.5 million gained through the conspiracy scheme. Maloney said Caldwell personally gained $900,000 through the illegal investments.
When Maloney said Caldwell had been stripped of his lifestyle and loss of position, Hicks pointed out that Caldwell, even though now considered a lay minister, was drawing a salary from the church of $7,000 a month, while his wife, who has assumed the role of senior pastor, gets $15,000 a month in addition to $15,000 for a housing allowance.
Assistant U.S. District Attorney Mignonne Griffing called Maloney's argument for home confinement an attempt to "weasel out" of the "very generous" plea agreement. She said it is an "attempt to get the benefit of the cap of the court’s discretion by sticking with plea agreement but by also saying it doesn’t mean he has to go to jail."
Defense attorney Nichole Buckle disagreed there was an attempt to "weasel out" of the agreement. Caldwell fully intended to cooperate with the government, but when the plea was made in March 2020 the full extent of COVID-19 was not known, she said.
Assistant U.S Attorney Seth Reeg said the lives of Caldwell's 22 victims have been changed forever. And while Caldwell may be known in Houston for the notable good he did for the community, it's been overshadowed by the years he spent "defrauding people of this community."
Caldwell's actions demand imprisonment, Reeg said.
Hicks said he has confidence the Bureau of Prisons has the ability to address Caldwell's health concerns. But he will consider a motion at a later date to defer Caldwell's report date. That doesn't mean it will be granted, Hicks said.
The judge called Caldwell's case the "classic get rich scheme."
"I have heard, properly, apologies, remorse and commitment to make people whole," said Hicks. "But I have never read in anything filed by the defendant, what I have never heard from the defendant, is the answer to the age old question is, why this ever occurred. That remains unanswered. It remains untouched as an issue."
The only witness to testify was Max Wayman, a former IRS special agent who was hired as a refund administrator. He talked about his review of the investor contracts that led to his creation of a list of original investments and refunds. Some investors had been refunded before Wayman got involved in July 2018.
During his testimony, Wayman said noted that Caldwell’s church had arranged for some of the investors to be paid; however, Caldwell then repaid the church. Hicks said he was originally concerned about a $25,000 payment by the church and listed as a “salary advance” and possibly using the church as a “piggyback on a temporary basis to make preliminary refunds.”
According to the government, Caldwell and Smith persuaded multiple victims -- all of whom were investment clients of Smith's in Shreveport - to invest about $3.5 million in their scheme. Smith's sales pitch to clients and acquaintances offered an opportunity to invest in Chinese historical bonds. The victims were not told of the true nature of the bonds and they were encouraged to cash out any other investments they might have if they could not afford to participate.
After Smith made the fraudulent pitch, the victims were instructed to wire funds to various accounts under Caldwell’s control. The funds were divided between Smith, Caldwell and others, the government said.
In 2013 and 2014, approximately $3.5 million was “invested.” The funds were divided between Caldwell, Smith, and others.
Caldwell used the approximately $900,000 that he received to pay down personal loans, mortgages, and credit cards, and maintain his lifestyle. Smith received $1.08 million and used the money to pay down loans, purchase two luxury sport utility vehicles, place a down payment on a vacation property, and maintain his lifestyle.
After time passed and investors began to question why they had not received the promised returns, Caldwell and Smith offered excuses, defended the legitimacy of the deals, and assured victim-investors that they would receive the promised returns.