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Disputes Snarl Teachers Union Criminal Cases

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2004; Page B01

Nearly a year after the indictments of four people on charges stemming from an embezzlement scandal at the Washington Teachers' Union, the case remains mired in pretrial arguments and allegations about the conduct of lawyers.

The legal skirmishing is the latest twist in a case that has moved slowly since the discovery more than two years ago that millions of dollars were missing from the union. Based on developments, lawyers privately say the case probably will not be ready for trial until the middle or end of next year.

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Two former union officials and two accountants face charges in U.S. District Court, and their prosecution has stalled as the lawyers trade allegations of misconduct and improper leaks to the media.

The defendants include former union officials Gwendolyn M. Hemphill and James O. Baxter II and accountants James A. Goosby Jr. and Robin Klein. They were indicted after the central figure in the case -- former union president Barbara A. Bullock -- pleaded guilty to conspiracy and other charges in the theft of $4.6 million in union funds from 1995 to 2002. Bullock is serving a nine-year prison term.

Hemphill, who was Bullock's executive assistant, recently asked the judge to dismiss all charges against her, arguing that prosecutors engaged in misconduct and violated her right to a fair trial with leaks and delays.

Meanwhile, the Office of Bar Counsel is reviewing the conduct of Nancy Luque, Hemphill's attorney, for possible ethics violations. The review came after former U.S. attorney Roscoe C. Howard Jr. complained that Luque had improper conversations with another person charged in the case. Luque denied any impropriety.

Attorneys for the defense and the prosecution have made numerous requests for more time to file the required motions and documents that are supposed to pave the way for the trial, saying the case is "extraordinarily complex." With the delays, the squabbles and the government's early difficulty in providing thousands of documents to the defense, the case is in the rare situation of being without a scheduled trial date almost a year after indictments were returned.

Some teachers are upset about the case's pace. The union has roughly 5,000 members.

"The question is, what's taking so long?" said Nathan Saunders, a Ballou Senior High School teacher and activist who has filed a civil suit over the union's mismanagement of finances. "This should have been done by now."

Saunders, who plans to run for a seat as the union's general vice president in upcoming elections, said that his lawsuit is largely on hold until the criminal prosecution is complete and that the public and teachers deserve some resolution.

"My contention is a speedy trial is good for everyone -- the public and the union," he said. "There's a taint on the union for the future until this gets addressed."

Prosecutors and defense attorneys declined to comment on the tensions surrounding the case. The trial judge, Richard J. Leon, has set a hearing for Nov. 22. The four defendants are free pending trial.

The case is one of the biggest white-collar prosecutions launched by the U.S. attorney's office in Washington in recent years. It became public in December 2002, when the FBI carted away truckloads of luxury items, including artwork and furs, in searches of the homes of Bullock, Hemphill and Baxter.

Since then, Bullock and four others have pleaded guilty to charges, including Hemphill's daughter and son-in-law.

Hemphill and Baxter are accused of taking union dues for personal purposes, and the indictment alleges that they were among the main beneficiaries of the theft. Hemphill, for example, allegedly used union money for $29,000 in dental implants and other dental work for herself and her husband. Baxter, the union's former treasurer, allegedly charged the union for more than $31,000 in club seat tickets to Washington Wizards basketball games for himself and friends.

Bullock and Hemphill resigned their posts in fall 2002, and Baxter stepped aside pending results of the investigation.

Goosby and Klein are charged with producing phony accountings. According to the indictment, they were paid fees "to cover up [the] gross misappropriation of union resources."

One of the first signs that the case would move slowly came a few weeks after all four pleaded not guilty to the charges. Prosecutors told the judge that they were not ready to set a trial date and that they needed more time than usual to prepare. They explained that they needed to hire an outside contractor to scan tens of thousands of documents that the defense was entitled to review. That process took at least four months.

Meanwhile, prosecutors learned that Luque, Hemphill's attorney, had a phone conversation in December 2003 with Hemphill's daughter, Cheryl Martin, with whom the government was crafting a plea agreement. That led to the U.S. attorney's complaint to the Office of Bar Counsel. Luque calls the complaint about her conduct "completely false in every respect."

For her part, Luque accused the government of engaging in prosecutorial misconduct. She accused prosecutors of improperly leaking information to reporters about the investigation in the months preceding the indictments. Her complaint centered upon news stories that said prosecutors and Hemphill were in plea negotiations.

"There could be nothing more prejudicial," Luque wrote, than stories that lead jurors to think Hemphill is guilty. "After all, why would she agree to plead guilty unless she was, in fact, guilty?"

Assistant U.S. attorneys James Cooper and Anthony Alexis have said they were not behind any leaks and suggested that the defendants or people acting on their behalf could have been the sources.

Defense attorneys also are battling prosecutors over whether the defendants should be tried separately or together.

Prosecutors object to severing the cases and want to try all four together. Defense attorney Robert C. Bonsib, who represents Goosby, said it would be good to move forward and resolve some contentious issues at the next hearing.

"We look forward to the matter being set for trial so Mr. Goosby can clear his name," Bonsib said.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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