SANTA ANA, Calif. – Federal investigators arrested a man Friday on a charge of wire fraud and alleged he ran a Ponzi scheme that netted more than $25 million by targeting Christian investors nationwide.
Jon G. Ervin, 61, of Mission Viejo, was named Thursday in a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana. A federal magistrate set bail at $1 million during a brief court appearance Friday and Ervin was not immediately released.
Ervin's public defender, Leon Peterson, didn't immediately return a call for comment.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission also filed lawsuits against Ervin and his company, Safevest LLC, on Thursday and obtained federal orders freezing their assets.
According to the criminal complaint, Ervin used Safevest to persuade victims to invest in a fake commodity futures trading program. Investors were told Safevest would use no more than 13 percent of their deposit in hundreds of commodity trades a day on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, with a guarantee of up to 1 percent in returns each day.
Investors could check their returns on a password-protected Web site that was run exclusively by Ervin. The program attracted about 550 investors, officials said.
Investigators alleged, however, that Ervin didn't invest any of the money in commodities trading and instead spent $1 million of the money to invest in a Georgia golf course. He also bought a sport utility vehicle and spent lavishly on air travel, gourmet meals and shopping, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.
Up to 80 percent of investors were churchgoing Christians and many joined the program after being approached by fellow worshippers through a referral system, according to court papers.
Those who referred others in their church would receive a 10 percent "referral fee" from the profits of the new members they solicited; pastors were required to make an initial investment of $5,000, while non-pastors had to put down $25,000, according to federal documents.
Investment materials included the resume of an Arlington, Va., pastor, the Rev. John V. Slye, who was listed as one of the founders of the National Center for Cancer Research and a prominent fundraiser for charities.
The SEC complaint states that Slye was the chief executive and co-owner of Safevest and was a signatory on several accounts, but Mrozek said Slye has not been charged in the criminal case because it's unclear how much he knew about the operation. Investigators have also not determined if all the information on Slye's resume was accurate.
"Basically, what you have here is a scheme that is being orchestrated by Ervin," Mrozek said. "There are people who are wittingly or unwittingly assisting him, and we're still trying to figure out who knew what, and when."
A Web site for Grace Community Church in Arlington, Va., lists a John Slye as pastor. Slye didn't immediately return a message left at his office and did not respond to an e-mail.
Ervin eventually returned about $18 million to investors who grew concerned and asked for their money back, but the rest was never recovered, Mrozek said. Ervin would dodge investors' phone calls or delay returning the money through a series of excuses, the criminal complaint said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Waier, who is prosecuting the case, was traveling and unavailable for comment Friday.