The Securities and Exchange Commission announced fraud charges and an emergency asset freeze against a Michigan-based pastor accused of exploiting church members, retirees and laid-off auto workers who were misled to believe they were investing in a successful real estate business.

Larry Holley, the pastor of Abundant Life Ministries in Flint, Michigan, cloaked his solicitations in faith-based rhetoric, replete with references to scripture and biblical figures, according to the SEC. Holley allegedly told prospective investors that as a person who “prayed for your children,” he was more trustworthy than a “banker” with their money. 

According to the SEC’s complaint, Holley held financial presentations masked as “Blessed Life Conferences” at churches nationwide during which he asked congregants to fill out cards detailing their financial holdings, and he promised to pray over the cards and invited attendees to have one-on-one consultations with his team. He allegedly called his investors “millionaires in the making.”

According to the SEC’s complaint, which also charges Holley’s company Treasure Enterprise LLC and his business associate Patricia Enright Gray, approximately 83 people from at least 14 states collectively invested about $6.7 million with Treasure from February 2015 until recently. Some turned over their entire life savings.

“As alleged in our complaint, Holley and Gray targeted the retirement savings of churchgoers, building a bond of trust purportedly based on faith but actually based on false promises,” David Glockner, director of the SEC’s Chicago Regional Office, said in a statement.

The SEC says investors were guaranteed high returns and told they were investing in a profitable real estate company with hundreds of residential and commercial properties. 

According to the complaint, Gray advertised on a religious radio station based in Flint and singled out recently laid-off auto workers with severance packages to consult her for a “financial increase.” 

Gray allegedly promised to roll over investors’ retirement funds into IRAs and invest them in Treasure Enterprise. 

The SEC alleges that no investor funds were deposited into IRAs, and Treasure Enterprise struggled to generate enough revenue from its real estate investments to support the business and make payments owed to investors. 

Holley and Gray also broadly advertised on social media websites and bragged about their professional success. According to the SEC’s complaint, Holley posted on various social media outlets and websites that he “has been gifted to inspire thousands of individuals to discover God’s promises and apply practical solutions for experiencing financial increase.” Holley’s bio also touted that he “has successfully created, managed and prospered in various businesses over 30 years.”

Meanwhile, Gray advertised herself as a “personal wealth coach” on the aforementioned religious radio station and promised to help listeners “make your money work for you!”

However, according to the SEC’s complaint, Holley, Gray and Treasure Enterprise were not registered to sell investments. 

To date, Treasure Enterprise owes more than 40 investors about $2 million in promissory notes that are past due – and that’s only Treasure’s Michigan-based investors. On information and belief, Treasure also has outstanding obligations to its investors living outside Michigan, according to the SEC.

The SEC has obtained a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan that freezes the assets of Holley, Gray and Treasure Enterprise. The court’s order also appoints a receiver and imposes other emergency relief.

The complaint seeks disgorgement of ill-gotten gains plus interest, penalties and permanent injunctions.

— Check out FINRA to Protect Senior Investors With 2 New Rules on ThinkAdvisor.