A 49-count indictment has been filed against the founders of Angel Food Ministries , a former food assistance ministry, claiming they stole nearly $1.5 million dollars from the ministry and with it bought clothes, shoes, jewelry, sporting goods, a classic car and even put a down payment on a jet aircraft.
Michael J. Moore, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, announced Friday that Joe and Linda Wingo are facing fraud charges, along with their son, Andy Wingo, and a former employee, Harry Michaels. The offices of Angel Food Ministries were searched by the FBI in 2009 after a federal investigation was opened against the Wingos. These are the first charges that have been brought against them.
“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,” said Moore in a statement.
The 71-page indictment says the defendants took money from the food ministry for their own personal use, and tried to cover up the conspiracy in the process.
According to the charges, which were filed on Nov. 29, they allegedly used AFM credit cards for personal purchases, tapped into AFM's bank account for their personal gain and allegedly received bonuses from AFM which had not been previously approved by the ministry's board of directors.
Andy Wingo and Michaels, with the assistance and knowledge of Joe Wingo, are also accused of using the ministry's vendors as a means of secretly stealing money.
They allegedly told vendors to charge AFM more on invoices than what the ministry actually owed. When AFM paid the amount on the invoice, the vendors would then send “kickback” checks containing the extra money to the defendants instead of the ministry. Vendors were allegedly told they could lose the ministry's business if they didn't comply.
The indictment says the defendants also used AFM money as a means of supporting a local candidate for Walton County Sheriff in 2008. They allegedly issued bonuses to employees, then told the employees to financially support the candidate with the bonus money they were given. The Walton Tribune identifies the candidate as Al Yarborough, who did not succeed at becoming elected as sheriff that year.
Linda Wingo allegedly tried to cover up all of the defendants' illegal activity too, once it was discovered they were being investigated by the FBI. The indictment claims she either tried “to persuade witnesses not to talk with law enforcement” or simply advised them to make sure they couldn't be located by law enforcement agents.
Linda Wingo is also accused of telling an employee to remove and destroy the hard drive of a computer in order to hinder the federal grand jury investigation even further.
The illegal activity the defendants are said to have participated in started as far back as January 2003, prosecutors say.
If the Wingos are convicted, they will be forced to forfeit any property they've obtained illegally and will have to give back a large sum of money which has yet to be determined. Joe Wingo could potentially receive a 105-year prison sentence if convicted on all counts, while his wife faces a potential 85-year sentence.
"The Wingos feel, when all is said and done, that they will be vindicated," Edward Tolley, the 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 respond to attempts made by The Christian Post to reach him for comment on Monday.
AFM was founded in 1994 and served as a food ministry to needy families, offering boxes of discounted food at prices that were more affordable than most retail stores. The ministry was forced to shut down in September, however, citing the poor economy and its struggle to afford operational costs.
AFM once sold food to approximately 500,000 families a month, some who heavily depended on the ministry to afford groceries. The ministry also laid off 90 full-time staff members as it closed down.
Joe and Linda Wingo “appeared in shackles” when they stood before federal magistrate judge Charles H. Weigle on Friday, 13WMAZ reports. The Wingos, who were joined in the courtroom by about a dozen members of their church, were released on $20,000 bond each after appearing before the judge.
Barry Bowen contributed to this report