Odd Couple At Center of D.C. Scandal

On Surface, 2 Women Have Little in Common

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2007; Page A01

They are a study in contrasts, the boss and her subordinate, two tax office workers who have been charged with stealing more than $20 million from District coffers.

Harriette Walters, 51, alleged to be the mastermind of the city's largest fraud by government workers, was the unusually generous but tough, hard-working "go-to" manager of the office responsible for property tax refunds.

Harriette Walters is accused of masterminding the alleged scam.
Harriette Walters is accused of masterminding the alleged scam. (D.c. Government - D.c. Government)

Her staff member, Diane Gustus, 54, was different: a quiet "follower." In her daily dealings, she carried herself as someone who did as she was directed and little more, current and former colleagues said.

As federal authorities unravel the alleged scheme, contradictory portraits of these two women are slowly emerging, though many questions remain unanswered.

What would have motivated Walters to lead a double life, spending years building a strong reputation in the city's finance office and then allegedly stealing millions? And was Gustus, who had built a career as a city worker, a co-conspirator or a hapless employee who looked the other way as she enjoyed Walters's generosity? Or was she something in between?

In the midst of an investigation that authorities believe could identify even greater losses and possibly ensnare other employees, current tax workers were reluctant to talk to reporters about Walters and Gustus. Those who did asked that their names be withheld. Family members were also reluctant to be interviewed, but this much about the two is known:

Walters, who worked 25 years for the District, has been described as flamboyant and outspoken. She drove a convertible Mercedes-Benz, wore diamonds and designer clothing and didn't mind sharing the wealth -- gifts that co-workers said she told them she financed with the help of a family inheritance and from those times when she hit it big at the blackjack table.

Gustus, married with two adult children, was also known as a hard worker, a woman who had put in 37 years with the city. She also worked part time at a Sears department store.

The work relationship between the two began as early as 1989, when both were supervised by Vella Traynham, who was head of assessment services for the finance office.

It was Walters, Traynham said, who had the dominant personality.

"If I needed her to do something, I could rely on her to do it," she said of Walters. "She knew what she was doing. That was probably her downfall. When you know the system, you can take advantage of the system."

"Diane was a follower," Traynham said. "I don't think Diane would have thought to do something like that."

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