ATLANTA - Leaders of a Georgia-based ministry that provided discounted groceries to needy families across the U.S., including several churches in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia, have been indicted, accused of using organization funds to buy jewelry, athletic equipment, clothes and to make a down payment on a jet.
A 49-count federal indictment filed Tuesday 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 afternoon, the prosecutor's office said. It was not clear when their son, Andrew, or the employee named in the indictment, Harry Michaels, would appear. It also was not immediately clear whether any of the four was in custody.
"The Wingos feel, when all is said and done, that they will be vindicated," Edward Tolley, an attorney for Linda Wingo, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "That's how they feel. They ran this ministry for a number of years and they fed a lot of people. They're very disappointed to be included in this indictment."
Tolley did not immediately return a call and an email from The Associated Press seeking comment Friday.
Angel Food provided food for churches in such local cities as Cleveland, Tenn.; Chickamauga, Ga.; and Chattanooga. As recently as 2009, it provided monthly food boxes to 38 North Georgia churches.
But in September, after news came out that it was under investigation, Angel Food sent out its last order, then laid off its full-time staff of 90 and put its headquarters building up for sale, according to the Journal-Constitution.
At the time, officials at several local churches said they had found other organizations to provide food or were in the process of seeking them out.
The indictment filed in the U.S. District Court in Athens, Ga., states the defendants used funds from the ministry to purchase classic cars, jewelry and other items. The U.S. attorney's office in Macon said it would issue a statement.
"As alleged in the indictment, these 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 filed 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 of operation, citing rising food and fuel prices, declining sales and operational costs.
The nonprofit organization was primarily a food assistance program, purchasing food in bulk at discount prices 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.
Families typically ordered multimeal boxes of meatballs, ham and other staples from monthly menus, spending roughly $30 for an estimated $65 worth of groceries, Angel Food has said in the past. Families then collected boxes at churches that were rewarded with at least $1 for every box delivered.
Angel Food was started in 1994 by the Wingos with 34 families in Monroe. It grew through a network of churches to feed more than 500,000 families a month in 45 states. The organization ran into its most serious trouble in 2009 when the FBI searched its offices.
The indictment alleges that beginning in January 2003, the defendants used the organization's bank accounts for their own personal benefit without the approval of the board of directors. Tax records have shown the Wingos were receiving six-figure salaries at some points.
The indictment says Joe and Linda Wingo established other nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies and used them to funnel Angel Food Ministries funds for their personal use and took actions "to cover up their illegal activities when they learned they were under investigation."
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; diverting proceeds from the sale of excess inventory for personal use; and giving employees bonuses and instructing them to make personal contributions to political candidates in the amount of the bonuses.