Three former workers accused of embezzling more than $200,000 from a Lowcountry Head Start program pleaded not guilty before a federal judge Wednesday.

Patsy Gardner, 41, of North Charleston; John F. Singleton, 38, of Summerville; and Melissa Major, 36, of St. George, told U.S. Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant that they understood the charges and possible penalties.

Marchant released them each on a $30,000 unsecured bond.

Gardner is the former executive director of the Berkeley Dorchester Counties Economic Development Corp., and she hired Singleton and Major as the agency's human resources director and finance director, respectively.

A federal grand jury named all three last week in a 13-count indictment accusing them of writing unauthorized checks to themselves, sharing the proceeds and covering it up by recording them in the agency's books as checks to service providers.

The indictment also states they tried to conceal the operation by making bogus agency credit card expenditures and using those funds to make it appear that the money was returned to the agency.

The checks ranged from $5,000 to more than $51,000; they were written in late 2007.

Gardner was asked to resign in July 2008 after the board of the Moncks Corner-based agency learned of a $1.2 million deficit and of the state's call to repay $238,000 in nonfederal money. Singleton and Major left the agency in December 2007.

The agency ran federal and state programs to help low-income people, including the Head Start school program, energy assistance, home weatherization and block grants for nutrition and health care programs. Its services have been assumed by other agencies.

The FBI and the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services investigated the case, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Klumb of Charleston is prosecuting it.