Angel Food Ministry benefited founders, feds say

Kickbacks, cover-ups, lavish purchases in indictment

Joe and Linda Wingo started Angel Food Ministries 17 years ago with a simple idea: Buy food in bulk and sell it at a discount to families through a network of churches.

The Monroe-based nonprofit eventually became wildly successful, selling almost 600,000 boxes of food a month in 45 states. In 2008, after obtaining more than $7 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture loans and grants, Angel Food was recognized by the White House as a model of collaboration between the government and faith-based initiatives.

But “Pastor Joe” and “Pastor Linda,” as they were called, also siphoned millions of dollars off their nonprofit food ministry — and spent the money to support a lavish lifestyle — a recent federal indictment alleges.

A review of the indictment by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution provides new details about the case. It illuminates the couple’s spending sprees and paints a more compelling picture of how the case against the couple unfolded — and their attempts to cover up the allegations.

All of this has led those who worked with Angel Food to ask new questions — and to express their dismay that something that started out positively ended so badly.

“It really leaves you with an empty feeling and mixed emotions,” said the Rev. David Chancey, senior pastor of McDonough Road Baptist Church in Fayetteville, whose church once handed out more than 100 food boxes a month.

According to the indictment, the Wingos used Angel Food funds to make a $280,000 down payment on a Beechjet 400A aircraft, make other down payments on real estate and buy a $65,000 classic car. And they took more than $1.48 million from the nonprofit by giving bonuses to themselves and to others, prosecutors say.

Other details offered in the indictment include a two-day spree in February 2006, when Joe Wingo dropped more than $5,000 at Bailey Banks & Biddle and Spa Sydell. Two months later, he spent more than $5,400 on jewelry at Macy’s. That same year, Linda Wingo spent more than $15,000 on clothing and home appliances.

The 49-count indictment culminates a two-year federal investigation into Angel Food, which shut down its operations in September. It names as defendants the Wingos; one of their sons, Andy; and Harry Michaels, another former Angel Food employee. All four have court appearances scheduled next week in Macon and are expected to plead not guilty.

“It was a great service to the community,” said Alisha Griffin, host site director at Evangelistic New Life Apostolic Church in Forest Park. “We had a lot of disabled and elderly people, and now that service is not available to them anymore.”

Donations are now being redirected to a community food and clothing ministry.

“There is a sense of disappointment,” Chancey said, “especially with the perception of greed when so many families could have benefited from the continuation of the monthly ministry.”

‘A matter of time’

The case against the Wingos began in 2009, when they were initially implicated in wrongdoing in a lawsuit filed by two men on the ministry’s board of directors. The suit appears to have laid the groundwork for the federal indictment.

The same year the suit was filed, FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents searched Angel Food’s offices.

“It was just a matter of time,” said Craig Atnip, one of the board members who filed the suit. “I think a lot of people thought the whole thing was over, and we knew it wasn’t.”

That lawsuit, Atnip said, was filed to prevent what happened in September — the closure of Angel Food’s operation.

“If laws have been broken,” he said, “I guess it is what it is.”

Athens attorney Edward Tolley, who represents Linda Wingo, declined to comment this week. In a prior interview, he said, “The Wingos feel that when all is said and done, they will be vindicated.”

Andy Wingo could not be reached for comment. Michaels’ lawyer, Thomas Bever, did not return calls or emails seeking comment.

The 71-page indictment not only details the lavish purchases, but also includes allegations of kickbacks from vendors and outlines some of the steps taken to thwart investigators.

Linda Wingo, for example, tried to persuade employees not to reveal information to the FBI and told one employee, according to the indictment, to remove a computer hard drive from her home and destroy it.

In 2007, during a trip to Atlantic City, Michaels called the president of a New Jersey poultry vendor and had him wire $10,000 to him and Andy Wingo at the Trump Plaza Hotel Casino. Two months later, according to the indictment, Angel Food received an invoice from the vendor for $10,000 for “cold storage” to recover the money.

And in 2008, Joe Wingo used Angel Food funds to pay bonuses to reimburse employees who, at Wingo’s direction, had made contributions to a politician’s campaign, according to the indictment.

That indictment also alleges that Andy Wingo and Michaels told vendors they had to pay kickbacks as a condition of doing business with Angel Food. Joe Wingo participated in this scheme, too, according to the indictment.

As instructed, vendors inflated their Angel Food invoices to cover what they paid in kickbacks, the indictment says.

One of Angel Food’s primary food vendors, Bill Askins, head of J&W Foods in Birmingham, has already agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

He is expected to testify against the Wingos and Michaels and provide information about the allegations of money laundering and kickbacks — if the case goes to trial.

Askins, who sold millions of dollars of food to Angel Food, pleaded guilty last year to tax fraud.

Askins’ lawyer, David McKnight, confirmed that his client is cooperating, but he declined to comment further.

Fabricated invoices

According to the indictment, Askins did more than participate in a kickback scheme.

Beginning in 2005, Andy Wingo instructed Askins to fabricate invoices for fictitious transactions between J&W Foods and Angel Food for popcorn chicken and chicken tenders, the indictment says. It alleges the proceeds were funneled to a for-profit firm established in 1996 by the Wingos.

And in March 2007, the indictment says, Andy Wingo arranged for Askins to help him buy a $347,000 home in Walton County.

After Askins sent a cashier’s check for the cost of the home to Wingo’s closing attorney, Wingo told Askins to allow J&W Foods to recoup the money through inflated invoices, according to the indictment.

Askins then overbilled Angel Food in a series of invoices to recover the cost of the house, plus an additional $50,557, the indictment says.

Dennis Young, director of nonprofit studies at Georgia State University, said the allegations, if true, show how important it is for nonprofits to be as transparent as possible.

The Angel Food scandal will likely have ramifications throughout the nonprofit world, Young said.

“It undermines the image of the sector as a whole,” he said. “One rotten apple spoils the barrel.”