Preacher pleads guilty in fake-passport case

Houston Chronicle

Edgar Lopez Bertrand, a televangelist regarded as one of the most influential ministers in El Salvador pleaded guilty Thursday to faking a passport for a girl he falsely claimed as his daughter.

Bertrand, 65, pleaded guilty in a Houston federal court after reaching a plea agreement with federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C.

Prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence of time served if a background check finds no criminal convictions, Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Davis said.

U.S. District Judge David Hittner scheduled Lopez Bertrand's sentencing for Aug. 11. He will have served about three months in the federal detention center by then.

Hittner questioned the leniency of the plea agreement, considering Lopez Bertrand's admission of guilt to a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Assistant Public Defender Peter Bray told the judge that Lopez Bertrand had tried to adopt the girl, and a Salvadoran lawyer had supplied the paperwork, including a birth certificate. Bray said Lopez Bertrand suspected that the birth certificate was forged but used it anyway. The judge cut off Bray's explanation, and Bray declined to elaborate after the hearing.

Heidi Pasichow, assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, said Lopez Bertrand never claimed to have been tricked into using the fake birth certificate.

"I don't think there are any mitigating circumstances," she said about the crime.

Pasichow said she could not comment on whether the Salvadoran government had tried to intervene. Lopez Bertrand is a U.S. citizen, she said.

The plea agreement states that Lopez Bertrand first presented a fraudulent Salvadoran birth certificate in the name of Pamela Lopez Bertrand to the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador on Feb. 17, 1995.

He renewed the passport in February 2000, but a consular official became suspicious when Lopez Bertrand appeared at the embassy for a third renewal on Jan. 27 this year, the agreement states.

Questioned by a special agent from the embassy's regional security office, Lopez Bertrand admitted that the woman, now 20, is not his biological daughter and that the birth certificate was false, the agreement says.

He was arrested in May at Bush Intercontinental Airport while headed to Israel, leading to front-page headlines in El Salvador.

Supporters there distributed yellow ribbons. At least six supporters were in court Thursday during his guilty plea. None would comment.

Lopez Bertrand — known as "Hermano Toby," or Brother Toby, to his followers — was arrested on a complaint from Washington, where the plea agreement was crafted, and the case was transferred to Houston. He heads the Baptist Biblical Tabernacle Friends of Israel Church in San Salvador, an evangelical congregation that claims 200,000 followers.

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