AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Georgia ministry scam plea deal could get thrown out

Millions of dollars intended to help feed the poor instead was diverted by a Georgia family to pay for their gambling trips, houses, cars and jewelry and to make a down-payment on a private jet. But the guilty plea of one of the people behind the Angel Food Ministries scheme may get thrown out. The trial court should have raised the issue of whether Andrew Wingo was mentally incompetent, even if his attorney did not bring it up, according to a Tuesday ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Doctors had told the trial court that Wingo, who was chief operating officer of Angel Foods, had extensive brain damage. His wife testified that he suffered from early-onset dementia. Friends said he had grown increasingly emotionally and mentally volatile. There was also testimony that he had a stress disorder relating to sexual abuse as a child and that he lived in a house with guns, knives and ammunition strewn about.

That should have signaled the court that he may not have been competent to agree to a plea deal, the appeals court ruling says. It ordered an inquiry into whether Wingo was competent at the time he pleaded guilty in 2013. If he was not, his guilty plea must be thrown out, and the government won't be able to re-try him until he is competent, the ruling says.

The ministry closed in September 2011, citing the bad economy and high food and fuel costs. But in December 2011, federal officials announced an indictment against the ministry's leadership, following an FBI and IRS investigation that spanned more than three years and involved hundreds of millions of documents.

The Monroe-based ministry had worked with churches nationwide to gather donations and distribute food and had grown into a $140 million a year nonprofit. Wingo's father, pastor Joe Wingo, admitted to investigators that he used the charity for personal gain and allowed family members to do the same, according to AJC reports. He and his son drew 7-year prison sentences. Joe Wingo's wife, Linda, was sentenced to five years of probation. An Angel Foods associate, Harry Michaels, drew a 30-month sentence.

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About the Author

Lois Norder is Senior Editor for Investigations in the newsroom at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.