By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 1, 2005
Two former officials of the Washington Teachers' Union were convicted yesterday of helping to embezzle millions of dollars that went to pay for fur coats, Wizards tickets and other personal purchases.
Gwendolyn M. Hemphill, who was an aide to the union president, and James O. Baxter II, formerly the union treasurer, were convicted in U.S. District Court of conspiracy, fraud, embezzlement, money laundering and other charges.
Each faced 23 counts, and each count came back guilty from the jury, which began deliberating a week ago after a trial that lasted three months.
A third defendant, accountant James A. Goosby Jr., was cleared of all six counts against him. Goosby had been hired to do some work for the union and had been charged with joining in the conspiracy.
Hemphill and Baxter, who will be sentenced by Judge Richard J. Leon in December, declined to comment as they left the courthouse, but Goosby was eager to talk.
"I'm glad it's over," he told reporters outside the courthouse. "I enjoyed my time down here, meeting you people, but I don't want to go through it again."
Standing next to his attorney, Robert Bonsib, Goosby said that he was fortunate to have loyal clients who had stood by him during the trial, and that now he had to get back to work.
"My business is way behind," he said. "I need to catch up."
The verdicts cap the biggest public corruption prosecution in the District in recent years.
Barbara A. Bullock, the former union president, pleaded guilty in 2003 to a leading role in the looting of nearly $5 million, and she was the government's star witness in the trial. Bullock, who is serving a nine-year prison sentence, testified that she, Hemphill and Baxter milked the union's bank accounts, which were funded by dues from working teachers and retirees. Another prosecution witness, former union chauffeur Leroy Holmes, also pleaded guilty to charges; from the witness stand, he urged everyone involved to confess their guilt.
In a trial that offered scant courtroom drama, Bullock's tales of brazen thievery were the exception. And for the prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Anthony M. Alexis, James W. Cooper and Jeannie S. Rhee, the testimony may have been the linchpin in their case. Jurors and spectators were enthralled by her accounts of spectacular spending and by the sight of some of the luxury items.
The government said that beginning in 1996 and until the thefts were discovered in 2002, the former leaders bought fancy clothes, artwork and other items. The union hired outside auditors to examine the books, and the FBI and other agencies launched an investigation. Authorities carted off truckloads of items in searches of the homes of Bullock, Hemphill and Baxter in December 2002, and a grand jury returned indictments the next year.
Hemphill's attorney argued that she was a dutiful employee who did not question her boss's spending, hardly a participant or planner in the scheme. But prosecutors pointed to the wedding Hemphill had catered at union expense, the $29,000 in dental implants for her and her husband that the union paid for, and the plasma television the union purchased for the Hemphills' recreation room.
Baxter had his season tickets for the Wizards' basketball games paid for by the union, and his salary continued long after he left the labor organization, according to prosecutors. The defense countered that everything Baxter received was either authorized by other union officials or considered a legitimate business expense.
Like Bullock, who became president of the union in 1994, Hemphill and Baxter had political connections. Hemphill was co-chair of Mayor Anthony A. Williams's 2002 reelection campaign, and Baxter was once the mayor's full-time liaison to labor unions. Both pleaded not guilty to all charges. Each could face 15 to 21 years in prison.
Prosecutors said that Hemphill and Baxter devised shell corporations, made out duplicate salary checks for themselves and wrote phony checks to pretend that they used their own money for personal bills -- all to conceal their pilfering of dues paid by thousands of public school teachers and retirees.
Goosby was acquitted of a charge that he filed false tax and financial statements as the union's part-time accountant.