A really big shoe dropped Monday when Merle Temple of Evans pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy, theft of federal funds and wire fraud in connection with former state school superintendent Linda Schrenko's failed 2002 bid for governor.
Temple, of Evans, is the third and most prominent defendant yet to plead guilty in the federal indictment. And for Schrenko, once a promising Cinderella story for her rise from local school principal to state leader, the plea is another troubling sign that the glass slippers could be replaced by the proverbial vertical strips of a prison wardrobe.
Temple could get up to 35 years in prison when he's sentenced April 7, but the guilty plea likely will reduce that time significantly. He's also on the hook for $750,000 in fines and nearly $200,000 more in restitution for taking part in a scheme that prosecutors say stole more than $600,000 in federal education funds and spent it on Schrenko's gubernatorial campaign that Temple managed.
Understandably, the plea is bad news for Schrenko, who has pleaded innocent. But what does this whole, sordid episode mean for Columbia County?
For one thing, it means we are spared what could have been a tremendous error in our voters' judgment. En route to losing statewide in the August 2002 Republican Primary to Sonny Perdue by a 2-1 margin, Schrenko was winning her home community by a 3-1 margin. If the rest of the state had followed Columbia County's lead, Georgia would be facing a tremendous crisis with an indicted governor.
Instead, Columbia County is likely to benefit greatly from the relationship between Gov. Perdue, state Rep. Ben Harbin and the rest of the county's legislative delegation, newly empowered by the Republican takeover of state government. The delegation's leadership roles are expected to pay big dividends for Columbia County.
Much has been made lately of the perceived lack of wisdom of Richmond County's 22nd District state Senate voters in returning Charles Walker to a state Senate post after his 140-count federal indictment. Likewise, local officials frustrated with a leadership vacuum next door are turning to Columbia County to fill the void.
Still getting accustomed its brand-new rise to statewide prominence, Columbia County is fortunate not to be facing accusatory stares from the rest of the state, blaming our citizens for also sending a criminally accused official to Atlanta.
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