One thing I have always noticed about politicians is this: for almost anyone in elective office, hypocrisy is like heroin. It’s so addictive that it’s nearly impossible to resist it.
I was reminded of that when I heard the news that Linda Schrenko, the former state school superintendent who had been behind bars since 2006, was being transferred to a halfway house as she prepared to finish her federal prison sentence for embezzlement later this year.
Schrenko is surely one of the most interesting people ever to streak across the political horizon in Georgia.
She was an obscure elementary school principal from Columbia County, who couldn’t win a race for county school superintendent, but in 1994 she ran as a long-shot GOP challenger to state school Supt. Werner Rogers. In a year where unknown Republican candidates surged to victory in races across the country, Schrenko scored a massive upset over Rogers.
Schrenko was one of the first Republicans and the first woman ever to win statewide office in Georgia, and for a time was considered a rising star in the state GOP. In 2001, she was invited to Washington when George W. Bush unveiled his “No Child Left Behind” education proposal.
Her eight years as state school superintendent were highlighted by erratic behavior and the espousal of conservative Christian beliefs.
She tried to persuade the state Board of Education to add courses on the Bible to the state curriculum. She asked the attorney general’s office for an opinion on whether creationism could be taught in public schools. She said Georgians shouldn’t join the PTA because it was a “liberal” organization that supported gay rights.
Schrenko reserved her most venomous attacks for all those evil, liberal Democrats like Gov. Roy Barnes. The “good ol’ boy system” that ran state government was chock full of cronyism and corruption that she would root out if the voters would only elect her governor, Schrenko contended.
Let’s stipulate a few facts, as lawyers like to say in court. Schrenko was correct that Georgia politics, during the time that Democrats ran state government, experienced its share of cronyism and corruption. We’ve seen similar incidents of corruption and influence-peddling in the time that Republicans have run state government. That’s an unfortunate byproduct of politics.
In this case, however, the person yelling about all that political corruption was herself stealing large amounts of taxpayer dollars.
As federal prosecutors later described it, Schrenko personally ordered the state Department of Education to issue checks in amounts totaling more than $500,000 to various companies that supposedly would provide computer services to the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf, the Georgia School for the Deaf, and the Governor’s Honors Program.
Those services were never provided and a large part of the fraudulent proceeds were secretly funneled into Schrenko’s campaign for governor. She also took $9,300 of the federal funds intended to help disabled school children and used the money to pay for a face lift.
Schrenko never did win that race for governor. Sonny Perdue whipped her in the 2002 Republican primary and her term as school superintendent ended a few months later.
She was indicted on federal charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and theft of public funds in 2004. Schrenko went on trial in 2006, but halfway through the case, she pled guilty to her role in the embezzlement.
As he sentenced her to serve eight years in prison, U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Cooper observed: “You’re the reason the public confidence in the political process continues to erode.”
“Her sentence should send a strong message to those who would abuse the public trust to enrich themselves,” said U. S. Attorney David Nahmias, who’s now a justice on the Georgia Supreme Court.
Schrenko has nearly completed that eight-year sentence and will be making her return to civilian life later this year. I do not know what lessons, if any, she may have learned while she was a guest of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Her rise and fall should be a useful reminder to us all about the hypocrisy of politicians. The ones who talk the most about morality and religion are the ones you need to watch closely. Some of them can steal you blind in a moment.
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com.)