ATLANTA – Linda Schrenko personally ordered others to fraudulently endorse checks to her campaign, according to a witness in Ms. Schrenko’s federal corruption trial Monday.
The witness offered the first testimony of the former state school superintendent personally directing parts of the complex scheme she in which she is charged with embezzling $600,000 in federal funds entrusted to the state Department of Education.
Shawn Neal, a onetime office director for Ms. Schrenko’s daughter, Dr. Katherine Cooper, said the former superintendent and deputy Merle Temple showed up at their Augusta dental office one day and began persuading employees to help fill out the checks, which until that point had no payee listed.
After the employees’ names were added to the checks, they were asked to endorse the backs, Ms. Neal said. She said she signed checks made out to herself and her husband, and was assured by Ms. Schrenko and Mr. Temple that the transfer was legal.
Ms. Neal said she never expected or received any money from the scheme, but was nervous about signing checks when she didn’t know what she had done to “earn” the money. Ms. Schrenko assured Ms. Neal she would later earn the income through a phone survey about the gubernatorial bid, in which Ms. Schrenko was running.
“She explained to me that it was kind of like I was working for the money, but I would not receive any,” she said.
The survey never took place, Ms. Neal said.
Prosecutors say the checks were later cashed and funneled into the 2002 campaign. In all, similar arrangements allegedly made at her daughter’s office generated more than $61,000 for the campaign, the government says.
Prosecutors allege it was all part of a plan to steal more than $600,000 in federal education grants to fuel the political ambitions of Ms. Schrenko and the businesses of South African businessman co-defendant Stephan Botes, whose employee Peter Steyn is also standing trial.
The $590 “focus group” checks such as those Ms. Neal said she endorsed came from companies owned or linked to Mr. Botes, according to testimony.
Ms. Schrenko also filled out a check for an employee who wasn’t present, Ms. Neal said.
“I saw her sign at least one of the checks,” Ms. Neal said.
She said she noticed Ms. Schrenko signing the check because the former superintendent had to be corrected on the spelling of the employee’s name.
It was the first testimony directly connecting Ms. Schrenko to some of the most serious allegations in the 48-count indictment.
During cross-examination, Ms. Schrenko’s attorney, Pete Theodocion, asked a series of yes-or-no questions, getting Ms. Neal to say that Ms. Schrenko never lied about where the money was going and that the ex-school chief maintained that the phone “focus groups” would take place.
Also Monday, former software executive Johnathan Turner wrapped up his testimony after about three days on the stand.
The defense grilled Mr. Turner on his plea deal. Mr. Turner pleaded guilty to structuring $16,000 worth of financial transactions, a fraction of the total $614,000 that Ms. Schrenko, Mr. Botes and Mr. Steyn are accused of stealing.
Mr. Turner, who said he was directed by Mr. Botes, carried out the complex series of wire transfers, cash exchanges and other transactions that prosecutors allege kicked nearly half of the money back into Ms. Schrenko’s gubernatorial campaign.
Mr. Theodocion said that the $16,000 amounted to just 2.5 percent of the total money involved.
“So you got a 97.5 percent discount, didn’t you?” Mr. Theodocion asked.
Mr. Turner explained that the guilty plea mentions the $16,000 was part of a broader pattern.
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