Merle Temple…Last of the Boy Scouts, Part 1
“I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused…” Graham Greene, The Quiet American
Merle Temple, quintessential choir boy, most courteous in high school, American Legion award winner, and boy scout, wandered in to the contentious political minefield of Atlanta in 2001 like some modern day Don Quixote looking for windmills to joust with to salve the ache of the missed adventure he passed up when President Ronald Reagan offered him a job in the White House all those years ago. But, it just didn’t work out as he had planned–no, not at all.
Temple, the descendant of Puritans, was a pillar of the Augusta Georgia community and the leading fundraiser and chairman for non-profits in town. He also was an anti-establishment crusader and lone ranger always searching for new dragons to slay. He had grown tired of his cushy job as a successful BellSouth public relations director, where an executive said he lived “not on the cutting edge, but the bleeding edge.” His search for the ultimate fight had already left him bleeding from managing what was called the “biggest upset in Georgia political history in fifty years.”
State Rep. Robin Williams was a mover and shaker in Georgia politics. Despite threats from the local newspaper and incumbent politicians, Temple, with quiet help from Congressman Charlie Norwood, raised money and managed a newcomer’s campaign against the heavily favored Williams who did not carry a single precinct when the dust settled. Temple earned some first class enemies including the Augusta Chronicle editorial staff, who supported Williams who brought home the bacon for their billionaire publisher, and Georgia Republican Congressmen, who hated to see any incumbent lose.
Temple’s employer summoned him to Atlanta to tell him that he had angered powerful allies in the legislature, and local media pals of Williams–a local newspaper editor and radio talk show host. Temple, who had won every BellSouth award in his department, was told by Georgia President Phil Jacobs that he must surrender his first amendment rights. Rather than dare them to enforce that edict as he should have, he was disheartened, demanded a severance package, and retired.
Norwood came to his rescue and tried to secure the Southern District U.S. Marshall slot for him. Temple had a Masters in Criminal Justice from Ole Miss, had been a state police captain in his youth, and the State Criminal Justice Chairman for the Reagan campaign in Ms. His close friend, U.S. Senator Paul Coverdell would have made all the appointments for the new George W. Bush administration, but Coverdell died suddenly with an aneurism at 62. That left appointments and political spoils to the Georgia republican congressmen. Not good–not good at all. Meetings with federal judges ensued and trips to Washington, but the infighting proved more than Norwood could overcome, and Temple threw in the towel.
Out of the shadows of fate came Georgia State Superintendent of Schools, Linda Schrenko. Temple, a chamber of commerce education chairman and well known reform advocate, was her East Georgia Business Chairman. He had helped manage her reelection campaign in 1998 when she won in a three-way race with a democrat and libertarian. Schrenko said that Bush’s loss was “her gain,” and offered Temple an appointment as one of her four deputy superintendents of schools.
In a move that would change his whole life, destroy his public image, and land him in prison, Temple accepted her offer, and rode in to conquer Atlanta just as he had every other foe on the field of battle before…but this time, the dragons were bigger and nastier, and his worst enemy…turned out to be just down the hall from his new office.
Merle Temple…Last of the Boy Scouts, Part 2
“In the middle of life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood. I had wandered from the straight path…it was such a thick, wild, and rough forest that when I think of it my fear returns…I can’t offer any good explanation of how I entered it…”–Dante’s Inferno.
Linda Schrenko was Merle Temple’s political hero when he entered the nest of vipers at the Georgia Department of Education in 2001. They were political associates, not personal friends, and he had no knowledge of the libertine past that haunted the highest elected republican woman in Georgia history, or the true depth of the animus toward her from the Atlanta establishment, both political parties, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and the State Board of Education.
Schrenko had been named the top female republican in the country, but was under siege. Temple thought he could bring his business acumen, political skills, and his tireless perfectionism and idealism to the leviathan that awaited him, and it would only be a matter of time before all surrendered, and he could go back home to care for his ailing wife as he always had.
However, he was no General Sherman on a march through the old South. His Hollywood script did not play in Atlanta where the last bastion of the all democrat controlled state would be gone within two years, but was then in an angry and ruthless survival mode. Schrenko was thought to be running for governor, and the State Board of Education, appointed by her enemy, Governor Roy Barnes, was at her throat and those of her staff every day, holding monthly meetings that were partisan blood lettings and torture of education employees. Barnes, who became known as “King Roy,” began to push his political appointees to secure federal education funds for the shadow government he was building.
The Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education told Temple to hold firm against any diversion and promised prosecution of misused funds. She repeated this to Temple and Schrenko in front of U.S. Secretary Rod Paige. A mole for Barnes in the Georgia Department was escorted from the building and promptly appointed as Barnes’ education czar. Temple’s phone rang off the hook almost daily with pleas for help from other agencies who said that Barnes was seizing control of everything in Georgia–appointing super directors to bypass agency heads, the legislature, and constitutionally elected officials. State police–roads and bridges–the port authority– the department of transportation—it was empire building on a massive scale. State troopers warned Schrenko to be careful on the road lest she be jailed by troopers who were in the enemy camp.
Then, a dozen or so White House and U.S. Education officials told Temple on a conference call that they had “reconsidered.” They would allow Barnes to divert all the funds he wanted. Absent were the administrators who told Temple to hold firm and enforce the law. These politicos said that to make it easier for the Barnes machine, they would send the money not to the Georgia Department of Education, but to the State Board of Education which was not an agency and had no lawful standing or structural apparatus to receive or disburse money. This was surreal to Temple and the moment he really knew how alone they were and that no help was coming from fellow republicans.
Temple was shaken and compared it to Wells Fargo calling the local bank to tell them that there were bank robbers in town, and to hold down trouble, their armored trucks would now just deliver the money directly to the bank robbers. Schrenko told Temple that a conservative in the White House said that she was being thrown under the bus by the Bush administration who wanted a Barnes endorsement of Bush’s No Child Left Behind education bill…the only democratic governor to do so then.
Temple wondered what he had gotten into, but it was about to get worse…much worse.
Merle Temple…Last of the Boy Scouts, Part 3
“…She caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him. Samson, Samson, the Philistines be upon you…and the Philistines took him…” (Judges 16:19-21)
Merle Temple arrived in Atlanta in the spring of 2001 to save the day for the embattled Georgia Superintendent of Education. By the winter of despair in early 2002, abandoned by the press–shunned by U.S. Ed–rejected by the President of the United States and republicans–he should have gone home to Augusta. It was not to be.
In the wake of the Bush sellout, Superintendent Linda Schrenko began a strategy to spend as much as possible before the State Board of Education could divert it to Barnes. She claimed her legal 5% of federal funds for administrative costs, and awarded grants to local schools. A million dollars or so went to schools–not Roy Barnes. The Board was furious, and tensions grew even worse. Amidst threats and phone sweeps for bugs–leaks and paranoia grew by leaps and bounds.
The fight with Barnes and Washington only exacerbated an already fractured and dysfunctional organization rife with infighting and jockeying for power. Temple’s Don Quixote idealism intensified to rescue the damsel in distress, and dispatch the villains violating the law. Amidst the carnage, Temple began to take increasing amounts of drugs prescribed to manage fibromyalgia pain, and panic attacks. His doctors gave him testosterone to boost his strength and injections for pain. His house was burning down, but he couldn’t walk away from the woman who told him of abuse throughout her life, and had black eyes when he picked her up for trips–tugging at the heart of the Boy Scout. She increasingly came to visit him to tell of the loss of her soul to the devil in an ill advised incantation as a young woman–later telling him that she knew what she was doing in these visits. He was the only one who didn’t get it. Thrown together on the campaign trail, he found himself violating an unshakable moral code. He lost his center in her darkness. He lost himself. He never knew what hit him.
Republican leaders did not want Schrenko as their candidate for governor because they feared she would cut the pork that they wanted when they gained power. So, they blessed Sonny Perdue, a lifelong democrat who had switched parties. Schrenko awarded vendor contracts for the State Schools for the blind and deaf in a bit of flawed “Iran-Contra”–kill two birds with the same stone–strategy to benefit the schools as well as her campaign. Around $200,000 came to her campaign, none of which Temple benefited from. The media said the money came from funds meant for blind children, but no money was allotted them except in contracts that Schrenko used to end run the board before they could divert the money to Barnes.
When the feds pursued indictments after Schrenko lost in the republican primary, Temple was mystified that, despite mistakes, no one acknowledged their efforts to deny theft and defend the constitution, but he looked at the laws the feds had, and urged her to plead. Schrenko said no–she had done nothing wrong. He was barred from talking to her, but she emailed constantly to play on his protective nature and sympathy, and influence his testimony as she again led him down the path to destruction.
In an argument with prosecutors, Temple became angry over perceived pressure to tow the government line in a way he was not prepared to do. He told her that he would tell the truth on the stand about Barnes and Bush. When he refused to abandon his wife as Schrenko demanded, she mocked his wife and told him coldly, “You’ve made your choice.” She notified the prosecutors that he called her, and he was arrested, shackled, and jailed in Atlanta where he nearly died from forced drug withdrawal. While he was near death, Schrenko, the master of the victim opera, appeared on television to blame everything on him, and testify for the prosecutor who changed all the facts to paint his former witness as the mastermind. When Temple almost died, Schrenko wrote him–“I’m sorry for any harm…thought they would just yell at you…”
Temple, the figure in this Shakespearean style tragedy whose story has not been told, reimbursed the amount of the money that came to Schrenko’s campaign though he benefited from none of it. He would have received little or no time if he had not contacted Schrenko, but he remains in prison in 2011, having served over four and a half years, longer than many violent, repeat offenders. The prosecutor, Russell Vineyard, who did not recuse himself although awaiting a Bush appointment, is now a federal magistrate–all of his rants to the federal judge regarding releasing Temple on bail were edited out of sanitized court transcripts erasing evidence of how personal Temple’s rebellion was to a man awaiting an appointment from the man Temple wanted to expose. Schrenko netted no time off for her betrayal of the most loyal aide she had, only public exposure of her darkness–a metaphor for a kind of murder-suicide of two lives that gained her nothing but exposure as a woman scorned. No one was ever prosecuted for the diversion of many millions in federal money, or had to pay any of the money back.
Temple’s wife of 37 years, Susan, whose heart was hidden in Christ, never abandoned him, and viewed Schrenko as her husband’s Delilah. Susan died from a long illness in 2007. The prison defied the order of a judge, and refused to let him attend her funeral. Her last note to Temple was, “Be good until we meet again.”
Even Temple’s enemies could not deny that he was a tireless worker for the disenfranchised in his life for no gain–always the naive idealist fighting the machine. He was given eight years–more than politicians who bribed judges and pocketed millions, but he was subdued by God as he lay near death in the Atlanta jail and found new birth and eternal life in brokenness. He ministers to the broken in prison, and leads weekly Christian movie nights that have exposed over two thousand men to the gospel and saving grace of Jesus Christ. Ordained a minister and married to a childhood friend in 2010, he has long since forgiven Schrenko and all involved, and finally himself. He has filed in Birmingham federal district court to have the honest services counts dismissed, and to tell what God has done for him in prison.
He only says, “It is here that I learned as C.S. Lewis once wrote, that I am not just some soldier of fortune, a body with a soul–but a soul with a body, and that God works His will through me as a spiritual being. I searched for peace and found the only peace there is through the Prince of Peace. Here in this awful pain and grief, He gave me eternal life. How can I then say that it has not all been worth it? “