ATLANTA — For more than a decade, Angel Food Ministries seemed like a godsend for families who purchased its low-cost food boxes and the churches that shared millions in revenue for distributing the goods.
It became an economic juggernaut in the faith community, employing hundreds, feeding thousands a month and pouring $19 million into its network of more than 5,000 host churches in 35 states.
Now, a lawsuit coupled with an FBI raid at the group's headquarters has raised accusations of financial mismanagement at the nonprofit. The raid and ensuing FBI investigation have left congregations and church leaders weighing whether to cut their ties to the high-profile charity after the reported disclosure that six-figure salaries were paid to its founders.
"We get signed up and I start hearing this," said the Rev. Chad Massey, whose Unadilla First Baptist Church in central Georgia planned to place its first Angel Food order this month. "It's kind of hard to know what to do."
FBI officials haven't disclosed the nature of the investigation surrounding the ministry.
Angel Food has acknowledged that a grand jury investigation is looking into what it called "alleged financial irregularities" involving unspecified individuals — but not the ministry itself.
Meanwhile, lawsuits filed by Angel Food Ministries board members and former employees accuse Angel Food leadership of using the non-denominational nonprofit as a moneymaking venture.
The Rev. Joseph Wingo and wife Linda founded the ministry in 1994 to help 34 families hurt by plant closings in the manufacturing town of Monroe, about 45 miles east of Atlanta.
Since then, Angel Food Ministries has grown to hundreds of workers supplying food for anti-poverty programs at more than 5,000 churches spanning several denominations. There are 473 distribution centers listed in Georgia and more than 1,400 concentrated in Texas, Missouri, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
All told, the ministry says it serves more than 500,000 families a month. It has no plans to interrupt food delivery.
Families typically order multi-meal boxes of meatballs, ham and other staples from monthly menus, spending roughly $30 for an estimated $65 worth of groceries, according to the charity's Web site.. Later, they collect boxes at churches that are rewarded with at least $1 for every box delivered.
At Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Conyers, administrative assistant Glenda Evans said leaders are sticking by Angel Food. "Hopefully it gets worked out," Evans said.
In 2006, the ministry reported revenue of $96 million dollars and $17 million in expenses. Tax records from that year show the Wingos and two of their sons earned a combined total in excess of $2.1 million for leading the ministry, up from just less than a combined $323,000 a year earlier.
Their combined salaries dipped to $501,472 in 2007, records showed.
Wingo did not respond to repeated AP requests to be interviewed.
In December, the salaries prompted a national Christian charity watchdog group to flag Angel Food as one of 30 ministries donors should avoid.
"One family for one year making ... more than the president of the United States of America is just kind of outrageous," said Rodney Pitzer, a top official at Wall Watchers. "That should be enough for donors to be concerned."
A Feb. 25 lawsuit filed by two Angel Food board members alleges the Wingos enriched themselves by at least $2.7 million and seeks to bar the Wingos from their Monroe headquarters. It accuses the Wingos of directing $600,000 from Angel Food to their church as a "housing allowance," according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
A statement on Angel Food's Web site called the lawsuit an effort "by two directors who are interested in removing the founders of the ministry — Pastors Joe and Linda Wingo — only to install themselves in the founders place. This is a power grab."
In disputing the suit, Angel Food said it has been "a model corporate citizen," donating $5.2 million to more than 5,000 communities in 2008.
Luke Erickson, a pastor at Mountain Christian Church near Baltimore, said church leaders like himself received an explanation from the ministry for the high salaries.
"They've invested a lot in it ... there was some kind of compensation given back to them by Angel Food and it was reflected in a large salary in one year," Erickson said.
Finances of prominent ministries have come under scrutiny of late, including a Senate probe begun last year of claims of extravagant spending by some leaders of Christian broadcast ministries nationwide.
The FBI involvement in the Angel Food case could imply far more than just overpaid staff, said Dean Zerbe, former senior counsel with the U.S. Senate Finance Committee. Though not involved with the Angel Food case, Zerbe said, "If you have ... the FBI knocking on your door of a charity, you've got issues beyond just paying a fellow too much."
FBI officials had no comment Wednesday, and no charges have been filed.
In Georgia, Donna Foster attends Emmanuel Praise — the Wingos' church — and her son works at Angel Food. Recently, she said, "Pastor Joe found out I was unemployed and he sent me a box of food."
She blamed honest mistakes for any perceived financial mix-ups.
"There are some people you can tell if they're faking it," Foster said. "You can tell that these people are real."