The lamentations, powerfully issued, can be overheard by passersby, even in a room of more than 350 people.
"It's embarrassing," one woman says.
Deplorable. A shame, say the other two, fitting their words in between sips of white wine.
The Sewall-Belmont House, site of last week's reception honoring D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton on the occasion of her new biography, "Fire in My Soul," is august. The food, appetizing. The honoree, worthy.
But these women aren't talking about any of that.
They're talking scandal. Talking about allegations that former Washington Teachers' Union president Barbara Bullock, her former assistant Gwendolyn M. Hemphill, former treasurer James O. Baxter II and others misspent more than $5 million in union dues on personal luxury items and gifts to friends and family.
It's cynical talk. Among black middle- and upper-middle-class city residents, it's the talk of the town. Especially since the key figures come from within their own ranks.
"She used the money to buy wigs!" says Daphne McBryde, a former D.C. school board official now with the National Alliance of Black School Educators. "Come on now."
The American Federation of Teachers, parent organization to the WTU, has filed a civil suit against eight people it alleges misspent or assisted those who misspent teachers union money. Neither Bullock nor Hemphill has been charged with a crime, but the U.S. attorney's office has filed charges against Bullock's chauffeur, Leroy Holmes, accusing him of conspiracy to launder proceeds of an unlawful activity, and yesterday he pleaded guilty. And the case remains under investigation.
(Hemphill declined to comment, saying, "I mean, how much more can people write about this stuff?" None of the figures associated with the scandal has publicly commented on the allegations; phone calls to Baxter and Bullock were not returned.)
McBryde used to see Hemphill -- who has worked with every mayor since home rule began in 1975 -- professionally at mayoral hearings on education. And socially, she went to Hemphill's house for a wedding. Before the scandal broke last fall, she might have expected to see Hemphill at the Norton reception. But not anymore.
To hear insiders tell it, there's a blob making its way through Ward 4 -- home to Hemphill and others associated with the scandal -- and it's getting bigger. It's sucking up good names, good reputations and longtime roots. It's feeding on prominent businesses and revealing soft, rheumy places where folks have been striving past the point where striving is good. Where they've been all caught up in easing out ahead.
"I'm amazed at the breadth of this thing and how it's touched so many people who live and work in the community," says lawyer and former D.C. councilman Bill Lightfoot.
He lives in the same Colonial Village neighborhood as Hemphill. Next door to Curtis Lewis, former Washington Teachers' Union lawyer and brother of Baxter. Nearby to Terence Coles, the former mayoral aide alleged in a lawsuit to have helped arrange a city contract for Lewis at Bullock's behest. Not far from Donna Fitzgerald Shuler, president of Independence Federal Savings Bank, where union checks -- with the payee's name allegedly scratched off and Bullock's chauffeur's name written in -- were cashed. Around the way from Ramee Art Gallery, where much of the expensive artwork seized by the FBI and allegedly bought with a union credit card was purchased. While the scandal reverberates all across the city and suburbs, Ward 4 seems particularly hard hit.
"People are waiting for the next shoe to fall -- waiting to hear who else and what else may be involved," Lightfoot says. "It's touched many people in old black Washington."
Part of that is because Hemphill enjoyed confirmed status as a longtime Washington social and political insider. (Less well connected, Bullock, a Ward 2 resident, benefited socially from her association with Hemphill.)
Hemphill belonged to the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, and in the late 1980s helped begin a program to aid abandoned babies in Washington; she's a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and the former executive director of the D.C. Democratic State Committee.
In 1998, the Washington Teachers' Union was among the first to support candidate Williams in his first bid for mayor and Hemphill became one of the mayor's close circle of advisers. Last summer, she was co-chair of the Williams campaign during the fraudulent-petition fiasco that cost him a spot on the Democratic primary ballot. She stepped down from that post in October as the union scandal heated up. Initially supportive, in the past few weeks the mayor has gone out of his way to speak harshly about former union officials, saying he is "disgusted" by the alleged conduct and feels "betrayed" by an individual he trusted.
"He's speaking of Hemphill, in particular," says Williams spokesman Tony Bullock, no relation to Barbara Bullock.
Helen Moody, a native Washingtonian, style consultant and frequent partygoer, says part of the scandal is that "these are the black folks who've made it," the Gold Coast and Platinum Coast crowd. That's local shorthand for those neighborhoods that stretch along the northwestern portion of 16th Street and became fashionable addresses for Washington's black middle class after restrictive residential laws were abolished in the 1950s. Today homes in the area sell from half a million to nearly a million dollars.
It's an older, college-educated set, approaching retirement age with money in the bank and luxury cars in the driveway. "They belong to the sororities, the professional women's business organizations, and generally when you go out, it is to support one of their functions," Moody says. "Judith Jamison comes to the Kennedy Center, and you buy a ticket from the Links," an invitation-only service organization of professional black women, "and go to their reception for her before or after the performance."
With such a well-heeled group, "you don't expect to theoretically sit down at the National Theatre and have to watch your purse," she adds.
Moody says she often saw Bullock and Hemphill at galas or luncheons. "Hemphill would be the one coming in first. She might not have the best table, but she'd be there. With Bullock, you may not see her as often, but when you saw her, you remembered."
Bullock, says Moody, always had among the furriest of furs, coats she rarely checked and wore right through dessert. "We're talking visuals here. What is this woman saying with her presentation, and what she was always saying to me is 'Here I am!' "
According to Moody, some people are outraged by the allegations and others are seething with quiet embarrassment, but, she says, "Let me tell you when the phone was ringing: when the list came out."
"The list" is the detailed enumeration of items seized by the FBI from the homes of Bullock, Bullock's sister, Baxter, Hemphill, Hemphill's daughter and the office of her son-in-law. It's a list of Louis Vuitton handbags and Salvatore Ferragamo shoes. Custom-made wigs and a 50-inch plasma-screen TV. It's a list of Tiffany and Chanel and gilt and excess. Items all allegedly purchased with Washington Teachers' Union money.
Items that add another dimension to the drama.
Washington is no stranger to scandal-contract steering, cronyism, dead folks on the dole. But folks say it would be one thing to play shady with taxpayers' money, and something else entirely to defraud teachers of money withheld from their paychecks for union work, and, presumably, District schoolchildren. They don't make a lot to begin with (from $33,581 to $65,581, while Bullock made about $110,000), so to take that money and have it frame your wall, or frame your face or have it tailor-stitched across your behind:
"Anybody would be disgusted," says Norton between accepting hugs and congratulations and signing books at her reception. Her mother was a teacher in Washington.
Not far from Norton, noshing on shrimp salad, native Washingtonian Paula Alexander, a Department of Labor accountant, and Washington physician Stephanie Carter talk about scandal. And they talk about offense.
"Why did it have to be wigs and designer clothes?" Carter asks.
Because that's "typical," Alexander says. "That's what we spend money on."
The items themselves have pricked a sore spot among some. Their frivolity harks back to the notion of conspicuous consumption as put forth by Howard sociologist E. Franklin Frazier in his 1957 critique, "Black Bourgeoisie." At the time, his work was roundly denounced for its assertions that the black middle class had developed a culture of over-acquiring material possessions to compensate for second-class citizenship.
The list spotlights an Achilles' heel for folks who perhaps haven't felt the need to have conversations with themselves about privilege, entitlement or excess.
Janette Hoston Harris is city historian for Washington and a former elementary school teacher. She lives five minutes from Hemphill, and says Hemphill and Bullock have always been ladies about town. The furs and expensive handbags the two favored were never cause for wonder, she says. "We didn't know how they got what they got, but that's what people wear who are in the social elite. Everybody has a fur coat, most people wear Saint John."
What galls is that the need for more and better and swankier may have crossed the line of reason and ethics, laying waste to histories of personal accomplishment, she says. "That's why Enron is having the problem. Here's another example of abuse of power."
Virginia Ali lives in Colonial Village. Her family-owned business, Ben's Chili Bowl, has been a cultural touchstone of black Washington for more than 40 years, and she is a graceful, elegant presence, but ask her about the scandal and her serene mask hardens. "We're talking about mature women here. They should have had better sense. I can't even imagine having $57,000 worth of silverware."
"How many furs can you wear?" asks Blondell Stewart-Nims, a retired president of Local 2300 of the Communications Workers of America, who used to see both Hemphill and Bullock socially and professionally for a number of years.
Her question is simple, powerful in its resonance. An indicator of when and where we are, and it calls to mind the scene from 1987's "Wall Street" where Charlie Sheen's softly warped Bud Fox confronts corrupt stockbroker Gordon Gekko. Tell me, Gordon, when does it all end, huh? How many yachts can you water-ski behind? How many is enough?
It was that movie that gave us the quotable "greed is good."
Staff writer Justin Blum and news researcher Margaret Smith contributed to this report.