Money problems have dogged Pastor Joe Wingo all his life. Whether poor, as in Wingo's hungry Atlanta childhood, or flush, as in his corporate-jet present, he has found ruin and salvation in the pursuit of profits.
His relationship with money has been at times contradictory. He gives it away, and he conspicuously amasses assets.
Wingo's successes and generosity have landed him at the White House. His failures have landed him in prison.
Now, heading the $137 million Angel Food Ministries nonprofit, he feeds more than 500,000 families a month. That is a good thing, say even critics whose allegations of financial misdeeds helped put Wingo and his family under a federal investigation. The bad is that the Wingos have gotten rich helping the poor.
Two dissident board members of Angel Food told the FBI that Joe, wife Linda and sons Wes and Andy have charged $852,000 on company credit cards, made millions, and used the agency as a personal bank. The FBI and IRS raided Angel Food's offices in Monroe on Feb. 11. A nonprofit spokesman said the agents are looking into one or more unnamed employees' possible financial misdeeds.
In an interview last year with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Wingo said money is not his motivation. He is doing God's work. But his theology makes room for prosperity.
"I teach that God wants us to have nice things. I also teach that you must tithe," Wingo said.
The history of this man, who has twice bootstrapped himself up from nobody to somebody and now stands at another turning point, shows a long intertwining of God and money.
Wingo declined to be interviewed recently, though he talked before the investigation.
Growing up poor in the Grove Park neighborhood of Atlanta, he ran a paper route to help feed his family. He wore homemade shirts. At one point, he had no shoes, so he wore his sister's penny loafers to school, drawing the jeers of classmates.
"That affected me in my life, because that's not fun," he said.
He aspired to more, and attended the University of Georgia part time but never graduated.
The affable and garrulous Wingo excelled in sales and socializing. Living in Gwinnett County, he got involved in Republican politics and sold insurance, eventually buying his own agency. His political connections landed him a position with the Gwinnett Hospital Authority.
In 1989, he approached a surgeon and offered him inside information and political influence in return for $80,000. They could both get rich, Wingo told the doctor, who contacted the FBI.
Wiretapped phone conversations caught Wingo describing himself as a "bull---- artist." He talked of wanting to pay off his house and live the country-club life.
Wingo contritely told a federal judge he was under a financial strain. He was caring for elderly parents and had given money to a friend's failing business.
The contradictory nature of Wingo's relationship with money came out in dozens of letters friends wrote the judge, asking for leniency. They told stories of Wingo giving, even when they knew he could not afford it.
"He has always been an 'easy touch' for friends and acquaintances who are in need financially," wrote Thomas Anderson, a Gwinnett County attorney.
The judge sent him to prison for a year.
He emerged, "totally sold out to God," Wingo said.
He worked odd jobs, one delivering dry cleaning and making about $1,800 a month.
In 1994, he was looking to help neighbors who lost jobs when he hit upon the simple but successful idea that launched the nonprofit that has paid him and his family as much as $2.5 million a year.
Wingo sold boxes of food for half of what the food would cost at a grocery store. Today, a box costs $30 and is worth about $60. The first sale was 34 boxes, and Angel Food Ministries was off to a modest start.
He now buys food direct from wholesale brokers. He cuts out middleman costs by selling it using volunteer labor through churches. In exchange, he donates $1 to the churches for every box they sell. He set up a network of churches to handle the sales, now numbering 5,000 nationwide and more than 200 in metro Atlanta.
In 2008, sales were $137 million. It supports itself and does not ask for contributions, a benefit in tough economic times.
Wingo was asked to speak at a White House meeting on faith-based charities last year.
To his congregation three weeks ago, he said, "I just feel like God, years ago, showed ... me that these times would come; that donation money, tithe money would dry up."
Wingo told them that times are hard and getting harder.
"And that is why what we [Angel Food] have to do is work very, very hard to make sure we don't waste any money," he said.
The budget-conscious statement contrasts with claims in a lawsuit filed by the dissident former board members, who resigned last week.
"The Wingos have been able to misappropriate significant amounts of money from the ministry, money that was intended and should have gone for food relief," it says.
Wingo and his wife own $2 million worth of property in and around Monroe, including half a dozen houses they rent to Angel Food employees. He rents a suite at Sanford Stadium to watch University of Georgia football games and travels in a private jet.
Last year, Linda resigned from her paid position, but she remains on the board. Angel Food ended its food brokering relationship with Andy in late 2007, court documents say. Wes remains with Angel Food, but his and Joe's salaries have been trimmed to less than $200,000 each, and the nonprofit has hired a number of accountants and managers in the last year.
Wingo said he believed he and his family earned their salaries. They created a self-supporting nonprofit that is helping hundreds of thousands of people, which makes them unique.
Wingo said, "I want enough, I think the Bible talks about that, [enough to] let me pay my bills, have something to eat, be happy and help others. And if I got all that, I'm happy."
Gary Snyder of Michigan is a former nonprofit executive who now consults for nonprofits and runs a watchdog organization.
Snyder growls at the personal loans, high salaries and the family's total control of the organization.
"A charity model is to give as much as possible to recipients," he said, "not to take as much as you can out of the business."