A convicted con man who co-founded a Southern California church months after leaving prison has agreed to plead guilty to running a church-based investment scheme that bilked people out of $33 million, federal prosecutors announced Friday.
Kent Whitney, 38, of Newport Beach, agreed Wednesday to plead guilty to mail fraud and filing a false income tax return. He could face up to 23 years in federal prison, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney's office.
Whitney was pastor of Church for the Healthy Self, run out of a strip mall in the Little Saigon area in Westminster until it was shut down last year after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed a complaint and a judge froze the church's assets.
The nonprofit was a “virtual church" that provided religious offerings online but mainly served as an investment operation that targeted the Vietnamese community in Orange County, according to an SEC complaint.
In his plea agreement, Whitney said that from 2014 to 2019, he scammed investors in a church trust fund out of some $33 million by falsely claiming their money was safe and guaranteeing a high, tax-deductible return from investment in the reinsurance industry.
In fact, much of the money went to fund a lavish lifestyle, authorities said.
Whitney founded the church in 2014, three months after he finished serving a 44-month prison sentence for a commodities investment fraud, authorities said.