Leaders of a Georgia-based ministry that provided discounted groceries to needy families across the United States face a wide range of charges under an indictment this week, including using organization funds to buy jewelry, clothes and to make a down payment on a jet.



A 49-count federal indictment against the two founders of Angel Food Ministries, their son and another employee includes charges of fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.



Pastors Linda and Joe Wingo, the organization’s founders, made their first court appearance Friday in U.S. District Court in Macon.



Magistrate Charles Weigle set bond for each at $20,000. As a condition of their bonds, the Wingos are prohibited from having contact with potential witnesses or victims in the case aside from each other and their son. They also can’t possess firearms and must surrender their passports.



Arraignment will be Dec. 15 in Macon.



Athens-based lawyer Edward Tolley represented the couple, but said he would remain only as Linda Wingo’s lawyer following the hearing. He said he isn’t sure if Joe Wingo can afford a private attorney.



Tolley said Joe Wingo is drawing unemployment benefits. Although he owns real estate, he started borrowing against the real estate when his business fell into financial trouble.



“The Wingos feel, when all is said and done, that they will be vindicated,” Tolley told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They … fed a lot of people. They’re very disappointed to be included in this indictment.”



The indictment, filed in U.S. District Court in Athens, states the defendants “raised money in the name of Christian charity, and then used a number of schemes to defraud the organization,” U.S. Attorney Michael Moore said in a news release.



The various charges carry a maximum prison sentence of five to 20 years and fines of $250,000 to $500,000 for each count, prosecutors say.



The ministry shut its doors in September after 17 years, citing rising food and fuel prices and declining sales.



The nonprofit was primarily a food assistance program, purchasing food in bulk and then repackaging it and selling it at reduced prices. While the stated purpose was to sell food to needy families, prosecutors say the ministry sold food to anyone.



Angel Food was started in 1994 by the Wingos with 34 families in Monroe, about 40 miles east of Atlanta. It grew through a network of churches to feed more than 500,000 families a month in 45 states.



The indictment alleges that beginning in January 2003, the defendants used the organization’s bank accounts for their personal benefit without the approval of the board of directors. Tax records have shown the Wingos received six-figure salaries at some points.



Among the various forms of fraud alleged in the indictment are issuing checks to themselves and family members and employees purportedly as bonuses not approved by the board; using organization funds to make down payments on real estate and retaining rental and sale proceeds from those properties; routinely using organization credit cards for personal expenses; using ministry funds to make a down payment on a jet that was then leased back to the ministry; soliciting kickbacks from vendors; and diverting proceeds from the sale of excess inventory for personal use.



Debra Owensby, of Covington, whose boyfriend worked for Angel Food, is surprised by the indictments.



“I still have a lot of respect for the man,” she said of Joe Wingo. “The food did help a lot of people … I don’t know what they were doing [to be investigated] but it was a good program.”



Macon Telegraph reporter Amy Leigh Womack and AJC reporter Shelia Poole contributed to this article.

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