Joe and Linda Wingo, the founders of the Monroe, Ga.-based Angel Food Ministries (AFM) who were recently named in a 49-count federal indictment, pleaded not guilty Thursday to a list of federal charges including fraud, conspiracy and money laundering.
Waiting in the courtroom for their arraignments, Joe Wingo stared straight ahead while Linda appeared to be reading from a Bible, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. About a dozen supporters joined them in the courtroom as they waited to appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge Chareles H. Weigle.
During his arraignment, Joe Wingo requested the services of a court-appointed attorney but was denied by Weigle, who said financial information provided to the court suggested that he was more than capable of affording an attorney on his own.
“You ought to have resources to hire any lawyer in the state,” Weigle told him, according to the AJC.
IRS 990 forms filed by AFM indicate that Joe Wingo's pay jumped from $70,000 in 2005 to nearly $600,000 the next year. The most recent filing indicated that he received just under $700,000 in 2009.
Attorney Ronald Houser pointed out to the judge that Linda Wingo's financial resources might not be available to share with Joe because she would have to prepare her own defense. The judge responded by saying that, for the most part, he saw no indication that the couple had any separation of assets.
Houser served as a stand-in for Linda Wingo's attorney, Edward Tolley, during the arraignment. Tolley has previously said that the Wingos believe that “they will be vindicated.”
The Wingos' son, Andrew Wingo, and former AFM employee Harry Michaels pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to related charges. All four of the former ministry's higher-ups were included in the 71-page indictment, which was filed Nov. 29 by U.S. Attorney Michael J. Moore.
Moore said that the results of a federal investigation indicated that the defendants “raised money in the name of a Christian charity, and then used a number of schemes to defraud the organization.” They are accused of defrauding their own ministry of approximately $1.5 million, which was allegedly used to support their extravagant lifestyles, including the purchase of jewelry, a classic car, the down payment on a jet aircraft and more.
Also included in the allegations are charges accusing Linda Wingo of trying to cover up the illegal activity while they were being investigated by the FBI. She allegedly told witnesses not to talk with investigators and also asked one employee to destroy a computer hard drive to further hinder the grand jury's investigation.
AFM was founded in 1994 as a means of providing discounted boxes of food for those living in poverty, although anyone was allowed to purchase from the ministry. AFM formerly served approximately 500,000 families per month across 45 different states before it closed down in late September, blaming economic woes as the reason for the shutdown.
If charged on all counts, Joe Wingo could face a 105-year prison sentence, while Linda could potentially receive an 85-year sentence.