ATLANTA (AP) - Leaders of a Georgia-based ministry that provided discounted groceries to needy families across the U.S. have been indicted and face a wide range of charges, including 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 Angel Food Ministries founders Linda and Joe Wingo, their son, Andrew Wingo, and an employee, Harry Michaels, includes charges of fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Magistrate Charles Weigle of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia set bond for the Wingo couple at $20,000 each on Friday, according to The Telegraph newspaper of Macon. An arraignment in the case is scheduled for Dec. 15 in Macon.
"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.
The indictment filed in the U.S. District Court in Athens states the defendants used funds from the ministry to purchase classic cars, jewelry and other items.
"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 multi-meal 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, 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 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.
In one example, prosecutors say Andy Wingo and Harry Michaels would solicit kickbacks by instructing vendors to increase the amount of their invoices to Angel Food Ministries to cover the kickbacks. They would then instruct the organization to pay the inflated invoices, "knowing that the kickbacks had already been paid or would be paid in the near future," prosecutors say.
Linda Wingo tried to persuade employees not to reveal information to the FBI and instructed an employee to remove and destroy the hard drive of a computer, prosecutors say.