A non-denominational ministry that provides low-cost food to the poor is being investigated by the FBI and IRS.
On Wednesday, the FBI searched the Angel Food Ministries headquarters in Monroe, Ga. The non-profit organization, which has an annual budget totaling over $20 million, distributes discounted groceries to thousands of families every month through local churches in 35 states.
FBI officials did not give a reason for what they were looking for or what prompted the investigation.
Ronn Torossian, a spokesman for Angel Food Ministries, has offered a possible reason for the investigation.
"Angel Food Ministries believes that this is an investigation of an individual or individuals connected to the organization, and not regarding the ministry itself, its service to the public or its host sites in any way," Torossian told The York Daily Record.
The FBI agents copied records from a computer server and did not remove anything during their search, another spokesperson for the organization, Judy Engelmayer, told the local paper.
Tax documents filed by Angel Food Ministries to the IRS suggest the probe is possibly linked to tax fraud.
The ministry's founding leaders and their family members received unusually high salaries in 2006, according to IRS tax records.
In 2005, the charity's founder and CEO Joe Wingo was paid a salary of $69,598. His wife Linda, a co-founder, made $69,598. Son Andrew Wingo was paid $93,615 and son Wesley Wingo, director of pastoral relations, was paid $89,944.
The next year, all their salaries soared dramatically and each took home around half a million dollars in compensation.
In 2006, Joe was making $588,529; Linda, $544,043; Andrew, $529,014; and Wesley, $454,673.
CEOs at nonprofits with expenses between $25 million and $50 million in 2006 made a median salary of $220,000, according to Charity Navigator. But Joe's compensation that year was more than twice the reported median when the charity's expenses were just under $17.7 million in 2006.
"The salary information for the family there is kind of outrageous for an organization like that, but especially one that's purporting to help the poor and those in need," said Rodney Pitzer, managing director of research for the Wall Watchers, a Christian charity watchdog, according to The York Daily Record.
The watchdog's Web site MinistryWatch.com, which regular reports on suspected misleading behavior or wasteful spending practices of Christian-based charities, recently issued a list of 30 Donor Alert ministries in which Angel Food Ministries was included for giving its leadership "higher salaries than the norm."
In 2007, although Angel Food's budget rose to nearly $27 million, Joe Wingo's compensation dropped from $588,529 to $170,413. Linda's was chopped from $544,043 to $54,723.
The family, according to tax records, also owe around $1 million in loans to the charity.
The investigation would not affect deliveries of Angel Food grocery boxes to host churches, Torossian told participating churches in an e-mail sent after the FBI visit, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Some churches are worried of the impact on the needy if legal troubles were to force the charity to shut down.
"If they go out of business, it's going to effect a lot of people," said Lynn Brown, administrator of the Georgia-based Ebenezer Baptist Church West, the Athens Banner-Herald reported.
"We have the same families come to our church month after month to pick up their Angel Food boxes, which are real cheap but the quality of the food is good."
Regular Angel Food boxes cost $30 each and one box contains enough nutrition-balanced food to feed a family of four for a week. Some menu items offered in the February boxes include sirloin strip steaks, chicken breasts, pork chops, stir-fry vegetables, breakfast cereal, rice, eggs and dessert.
Each box is packed with a Gospel tract and a copy of The Servant, the magazine published by Angel Food Ministries.