After everyone finished picking their jaws up off the floor, the reaction from friends and associates of Linda Schrenko this week was to pretend they didn't know her, never had anything to do with her.
Though rumors of potential legal trouble had been swirling around the former state school superintendent and Columbia County resident for quite some time, it was still a stunner when federal prosecutors Wednesday announced the 18-count indictment against Schrenko, Merle Temple and Stephen Botes.
After all, hadn't she and Merle been right out in the open, spending lots of time helping the local Republican Party?
Like me, many of those friends no doubt thought Schrenko's problems were in the past, and resulted from nothing more than poor fiscal and physical health, bad judgment and sloppy bookkeeping. Even the state ethics commission last year, after levying a $5,000 fine against Schrenko and her failed gubernatorial campaign, seemed to have little stomach for investigating further.
They, like me, appeared resigned to letting Schrenko come home, declare bankrupty and fade into obscurity. "I just want to walk around in Wal-Mart and have nobody recognize me," she told me shortly after her time in the superintendent's post ended.
Maybe that's why she had plastic surgery, eh?
Schrenko's time in office once held great promise. Her victory as the first Republican and first woman elected statewide in Georgia was unprecedented. But her service was bumpy. A Republican majority now controls all branches of state government, but in 1994 Schrenko was in the minority party and at a state agency in which the Democrats were dug in deep.
It's a miracle she wasn't a spectacular failure; as such, her limited success is remarkable.
With her time in office over, that obscurity she wished for seemed to be on the way. But then some state officials -- including enemies she cultivated while in office -- urged the feds to examine more than half a million dollars in questionable expenditures from the final months of Schrenko's time in office.
What the feds say they found is that Schrenko and Temple, who was her deputy superintendent, transferred money out of federal funds, into her campaign for governor and into their pockets.
Obscurity? Forget it. A gaggle of TV cameras will follow Schrenko and Temple as they walk into federal court in Atlanta Monday to answer the charges. The rest of us can't escape the glare, either: the same feds in whom we have invested so much confidence in the 142-count indictment of Charles Walker, a politician we love to hate, are nailing shut a case against Linda Schrenko, whom we suddenly hate to love.
Since those indictments came out, friends of Schrenko have been distancing themselves from her. And I'm eating crow. A year ago, I took WRDW-TV 12 anchor Laurie Ott to task for a sensationalistic series questioning what she called Schrenko's "spending spree." Schrenko had been fined by the ethics commission, I wrote; she lost her race, she's having financial problems, her health is terrible. Just leave her alone, I said.
While not quite geared for TV sweeps, Morris News Service had reported the same questions. The federal indictments, though not a conviction, now suggest there was a lot more to these questions than just smoke -- there's fire, too.
So, while Schrenko's friends are treating her like a political hot potato, I'm left feeling burned for defending her a year ago.
The only one who will defend her now is the attorney paid to do so. Her friends won't; nor will I.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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