Telephone and rent bills went unpaid, audits weren't conducted and teachers were turned down when they needed help -- all while Washington Teachers' Union President Barbara A. Bullock and her cohorts allegedly spent more than $2 million in union funds on furs, electronics and other delights.

As this went on, there was little oversight.

Bullock and other leaders were supposed to provide regular financial reports to the union's 5,000 members, but they rarely did, and the ones they did offer didn't really show what was taking place, according to sources familiar with union operations.

Now the union is reeling from its largest scandal ever, one that has claimed its top officers. An FBI affidavit says that Bullock, assistant Gwendolyn M. Hemphill and the union's treasurer, James O. Baxter II, had been taking union money for years. Although many members say the activities surprised them, others say they evolved from an environment of secrecy, deception and a lack of accountability during Bullock's eight-year reign.

Those who might have raised red flags did not speak out until the money had vanished: the union's parent, the American Federation of Teachers; the union's own three-member board of trustees; its 21-member executive board; its membership; and U.S. Labor Department regulators. The FBI, D.C. inspector general's office and other agencies are attempting to trace what happened and who might have known about it, saying that the unauthorized personal charges began in November 1995.

According to the FBI affidavit, minutes of union meetings contained no reference to the spending. Bullock and Baxter provided "incomplete, false and misleading" statements to the Labor Department that "grossly understated" how much money was being spent, the affidavit said. Tax returns also masked what was going on, it said.

John Traina, a retired teacher and one of the trustees, said trustees would occasionally meet with Baxter, who was responsible for quarterly financial reports. Baxter rarely provided reports, but when he did, they were filled with false information, sources said.

In hindsight, the trustees and executive board should have asked more questions, Traina said.

"He presented us with something, and it always looked good," Traina said. "He made up a sheet of paper, and we'd ask him, 'Are all the bills paid?' and he'd say, 'Yes, yes,' "

But they weren't. After the union failed to pay rent for its downtown Washington headquarters, the landlord went to court. A settlement was reached at the last minute. Other bills were very late or went unpaid, sources said, noting that the union even failed to make timely payments to companies that provided dental and optical benefits to retirees.

Some union employees who suspected improprieties stayed quiet for fear of losing their jobs, according to a source with knowledge of the probe.

"It's all part of the culture at the union office, but it goes deeper than Barbara Bullock," said George Parker, a teacher and union activist who unsuccessfully ran against her twice. He plans to seek the presidency again this year.

"It's a culture that is just unbelievable -- of financial secrecy, of manipulation of information," Parker said. "The problem is that everybody just let it happen."

More than three weeks after the 31-page FBI affidavit outlining allegations of fraud was filed in U.S. District Court, no charges have been filed. FBI agents have searched the homes and offices of Bullock, Hemphill and Baxter, and a grand jury has subpoenaed the union's financial records. Bullock and Hemphill resigned last fall at the executive board's request. Baxter was forced to step down.

Bullock did not return phone calls, and her attorney has declined to comment. Baxter did not return phone calls and his attorney has declined comment. Hemphill's attorney has said she is cooperating with investigators.

The interim president, Esther S. Hankerson, who served for eight years as general vice president under Bullock, said she was not responsible for financial matters, had committed no wrongdoing and had no idea that money was being stolen.

Several executive board members said they, too, were unaware of the problems until recently.

"The executive board had no idea what was going on and is not responsible for this," said member Elnora C. Oxendine, a teacher at Ferebee-Hope Elementary School. She said that only Bullock, Hemphill and Baxter were responsible.

Alex Wohl, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, said it was not the parent group's job to monitor the local union. The American Federation of Teachers, he said, is an umbrella organization that gives local unions significant autonomy. In 1992, the federation began requiring its locals to complete audits every two years so that members would have access to the information -- not as a way for the parent group to monitor operations.

As the union and the parent group work to gain stability, some teachers are questioning how things got so out of hand and how the local union can be put back together.

Indeed, Bullock inherited an organization rife with controversy. She took office in 1994 after members of the union ousted then-president Jimmie C. Jackson in an election run by the Labor Department. The election came under a court order because of irregularities in Jackson's 1993 reelection. Jackson was then accused of stealing dozens of items and records from the local office a day before Bullock was sworn in. A federal judge ordered Jackson to return the materials after the American Federation of Teachers filed suit.

Some members said they believed that in the early years, Bullock restored some measure of order to the union, adding that she was attentive to teachers' needs and negotiated a contract beneficial to union members.

As time went on, some teachers began to complain about services. But by and large, the union membership was apathetic, a number of teachers said. Presidential elections would draw votes from far fewer than half of the members. Few teachers would turn out at meetings, sometimes meaning that no business could be completed for lack of the required 100-member quorum.

Ultimately, according to union sources and others knowledgeable about the probe, Bullock and her friends were allowed to run the union as they saw fit.

Bullock hired and fired people at will, and though she was supposed to get approval from the executive board, she often didn't, sources said. One secretary who was fired -- a 20-year veteran -- won her job back in arbitration, but Bullock got rid of her again six months later, the sources said. When a staff member raised an objection, she was suspended for two weeks without pay, they said.

While some members said they thought the union was running well, others said they detected signs of trouble. One sued for dues improperly taken from his account, and others complained that the union didn't help them.

For example, in 1996, math teacher Charles M. Bagenstose believed he improperly lost his job at Jefferson Junior High School during a staff reduction. He asked for help fighting the school system.

"Barbara Bullock refused to do it," Bagenstose said. "She said she had to protect union funds."

Even when it came to legitimate expenses, money went to friends and relatives of union leaders, some teachers said. Bullock hired as the union's attorney Curtis Lewis & Associates, headed by Baxter's brother. Hankerson also temporarily hired Hemphill's daughter, Cheryl Martin.

Just as the trustees didn't press for more financial information, neither did the union's executive board.

Oxendine said it was not the board's job: "The executive board deals with policy and not with finance. And the only thing we knew anything about the finances is that we received the budget from the treasurer every year."

The union filed annual reports with the Labor Department, showing how its budget, now more than $3 million, was spent. The documents reveal no irregularities, and officials said they never audited the union's books.

When Bullock failed to provide American Federation with the audits it required, its officials raised questions. But they said their constitution did not give them the power to demand them.

Then, in fall 2000, the union stopped paying its monthly dues -- roughly $50,000 -- to the national organization. In repeated conversations with national union leaders, Bullock promised to pay but never did, sources said.

By February 2002, a top official at American Federation called Bullock into his office and told her that unless the dues were paid, union members would not be able to attend the national convention in Las Vegas that summer and that the local union would be stripped of its affiliation. Bullock agreed to set up a payment plan.

Officials of the parent union said they never suspected wrongdoing and instead assumed that the union had the money but was holding onto it to collect extra interest for itself.

During the time the union was behind on its payments and failed to complete an audit, Bullock was serving on American Federation's 40-person executive board, which sets policy.

About the time the local chapter made its final payment to the national union, it overbilled its members for dues -- $144 per member for a total of more than $700,000. When union members complained last summer to the parent union about the union's refusal to refund the money, it asked the local union for an explanation. Hankerson had her own questions about union finances after learning about the unpaid dues and asked for an audit. After that, the problems began to come to light.

Officials of American Federation said the problems appear more clear after recent developments than they did at the time.

"We're looking at this thing now and we're saying 'Look what they did,' " Wohl said. "There is nothing in our experience that would have ever indicated that this thing would have happened."

Leaders of the parent union say they are considering stricter oversight of their local unions. And they are considering temporarily dissolving the local leadership of the local union and installing national union staff.

For now, Hankerson is running the union with an American Federation official at her side who checks every financial transaction.

There was a culture of secrecy during the eight-year presidency

of Barbara A. Bullock, some say.