Two former workers who embezzled more than $200,000 from a local anti-poverty program were sentenced to federal prison terms today while a third was given probation.

The agency they once worked for, the Berkeley-Dorchester Counties Economic Development Corp., operated federal and state programs to help low-income people, including Head Start, energy assistance, home weatherization and block grants for nutrition and health care. It was disbanded in 2008 after having run up a $1.2 million deficit. Its services have been assumed by other agencies.

Patsy Gardner of North Charleston, John F. Singleton of Summerville and Melissa Major of St. George were indicted by a federal grand jury in August 2009, accused of writing unauthorized checks to themselves, sharing the proceeds and covering up the scheme by cooking the agency's books.

The 13-count indictment also alleged 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 and were all written in late 2007.

Gardner, the former executive director, pleaded guilty in February to two of the 13 counts.

At her sentencing hearing today before U.S. District Court Judge P. Michael Duffy in Charleston, Gardner's lawyer, Andy Savage, said the now-defunct agency had a culture of corruption.

Given a chance to speak for herself, Gardner apologized to the people of the tri-county area and said she felt remorse for her role in the scheme.

"To me this is just a sad day," Duffy said. "It's a sad day for everyone in the courtroom and for everyone in South Carolina."

Duffy said he remembers when Head Start programs began in 1965. "The people that money was intended to reach are still in need," Duffy said. "You were making $110,000 a year, you drove a Lexus and you have three degrees."

Duffy sentenced Gardner to three years and one month in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, and ordered her to pay restitution of $131,747.10.

Singleton and Major, the former human resources director and finance director, respectively, both pleaded guilty to one count of the indictment in January. Their hearings were held immediately after Gardner's.

Singleton's lawyer, Walter Ameika, said his client got sucked into the corruption around him at the agency.

When Duffy gave Singleton an opportunity to speak, Singleton began by saying, "I come before you in the precious name of Jesus." He went on to list his church, civic and charitable activities and asked for a non-custodial sentence.

Duffy gave him two years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, with $57,941.09 in restitution.

Duffy gave both Gardner and Singleton 90 days to report to prison.

During Major's hearing, the prosecutor, Klumb, asked Duffy for leniency.

"Ms. Major was the first one to come forward and tell us the truth," Klumb said. He said he doubts the other two defendants would have pleaded guilty without the threat of Major testifying against them at trial.

Major's lawyer, federal public defender Mary Gordon Baker, said Major was extremely remorseful. "Ironically, she was a Head Start child herself," Baker said.

Major told Duffy she was embarrassed to be in court. "My gullibility and an intrinsic nature to please people has me before you today," she said.

Duffy commended Major for her willingness to help prosecutors and her honesty. He said he didn't think Major would ever find herself in court again.

He gave her three years of probation, with electronic monitoring and ordered that she pay $30,649.60 in restitution.

Reach David W. MacDougall at macdougd@postandcourier.com or 937-5655.