ATLANTA — Former state school superintendent Linda Schrenko — already sentenced to prison for money laundering and fraud — turned government witness, accusing her former lover and campaign manager of leading the scheme to embezzle money from the federal government.

Discussing her crimes Thursday in federal court was a turnabout for Schrenko, who spent the last week and a half insisting she was innocent of embezzling $600,000 and spending some of it on a facelift and an unsuccessful campaign for governor.

Schrenko, 56, struck a plea bargain in the middle of her trial in exchange for testifying against her co-defendants. She was sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading guilty Wednesday to a count each of money laundering and fraud.

During Thursday’s testimony, Schrenko for the first time released details on her role in the embezzling scheme, which took federal education money intended for deaf and honors students. She and others funneled nearly half that money back to her failed bid for governor in 2002.

She also testified that Merle Temple called himself the “puppet master” and manipulated and deceived her.

Prosecutors alleged in her trial that Schrenko stole federal education money to underwrite her 2002 campaign for governor, cosmetic surgery and other extras, including a television, computer and a down payment on a car. She was originally charged with 40 counts, including conspiracy.

Schrenko said the embezzlement scheme was created because her campaign finances were “abysmal” compared to her Republican challenger, Gov. Sonny Perdue, who held a multimillion-dollar war chest.

“I spent every night crying for hours,” she said, explaining she traveled across Georgia in an attempt to win votes through speeches.

She said she wanted to drop out of the race but Temple assured her she could win.

Temple struck a deal last year to testify against Schrenko on the government’s behalf. But Schrenko gave prosecutors a tape of a phone call on May 2. During the call, Temple said he would withhold some testimony against her as long as her attorney didn’t “hurt” him, according to the tape’s transcript.

Temple currently is jailed for a charge of obstruction of justice on suspicion of leaking information to Schrenko’s attorneys. He had earlier pleaded guilty to wire fraud, conspiracy and theft of public funds and was expected to be a star witness in the Schrenko case before the plea agreement.

Schrenko funneled a series of $590 checks through companies held by Stephen Botes, who was seeking a $2.5 million state Education Department contract, prosecutors said. He is on trial along with his colleague Peter Steyn, who is accused of helping to steer thousands of dollars into Schrenko’s failed campaign.

Schrenko became school superintendent in 1994, making history as the first woman elected to a statewide, nonjudicial post in Georgia and one of the highest-ranking Republicans in a state that had been dominated by Democrats since Reconstruction.

She was re-elected in 1998, then decided against re-election in favor of a bid to unseat Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat. She lost the GOP primary to Perdue, who went on to beat Barnes.

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