Leroy Holmes, the former $100,000-a-year chauffeur for the Washington Teachers' Union, pleaded guilty to money laundering in U.S. District Court yesterday, the first conviction in an investigation involving as much as $5 million in missing union money.

Holmes, 52, who was Barbara A. Bullock's driver when she was union president, acknowledged to U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon that he had cashed union checks worth $1.2 million during five years, keeping some of the money and giving the rest to union officials. He took $1,875 a week in cash for his salary and did not report it to the Internal Revenue Service, his attorney, Louis Martucci, said after the hearing.

"It was a great job," Martucci told reporters when asked about his client's motive.

"What chauffeur out there is driving around for nearly $2,000 per week?" Martucci asked. "He knew it was wrong, but he decided to go along with it and not bite the hand that feeds. . . . At the bottom of it, it was just greed."

Holmes, a sturdy, bespectacled man graying at the temples, was taken by police to be fingerprinted after the hearing and did not speak to reporters. He probably faces a prison term of 30 to 37 months, according to federal sentencing guidelines, and he could be ordered to pay restitution. He also will have to pay taxes, penalties and interest on any income he failed to declare.

If Holmes impresses federal investigators with his cooperation against other members of the alleged conspiracy, prosecutors could recommend a sentence with no jail time. The maximum sentence would be 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. Leon permitted Holmes to remain free, ordering him to return for an April 15 status hearing. No sentencing date was set.

Holmes's plea and pledge of cooperation are important to federal investigators, who are trying to determine how so much money could have been taken from the union. The money was spent on expensive clothes, furniture, jewelry, vacations and artwork by the union's senior staff members, according to FBI investigators and an audit conducted for the American Federation of Teachers, the local union's parent organization. The activities allegedly were hidden from the union's 5,000 members and from the U.S. Labor Department, to which the union was required to submit annual reports.

Holmes had close ties to Bullock and two other former union leaders accused in an FBI affidavit of stealing from the union: Gwendolyn M. Hemphill, who was Bullock's executive assistant, and James O. Baxter II, who was treasurer. None are charged.

Yesterday, Martucci indicated that the activities were even more widespread than alleged in the affidavit. "Mr. Holmes wasn't the only one cashing union checks for personal profit," Martucci said after the hearing. "There are a number of people involved who haven't been named yet . . . This thing has a lot of tentacles."

Holmes was at the bottom of the chain, said Martucci, who described his client as a married man with a high school education and a son he was putting through college. Holmes started out at the union as a part-time handyman and stumbled upon an illegal way to join the middle class, Martucci said.

"He knew what he was doing was wrong," Martucci said.

In one incident in fall 2000, described yesterday by Assistant U.S. Attorneys James W. Cooper and Anthony M. Alexis, Bullock wrote two union checks, totaling $35,000, and made them payable to Holmes. He cashed the checks and deposited the money in Bullock's personal account.

In all, Holmes cashed more than 200 checks, pocketing about $100,000 a year for himself, according to prosecutors. He allegedly was given $7,000 for the down payment on a Cadillac Sedan Deville, which he used to drive Bullock and for his own purposes.

Yesterday, Holmes repeatedly answered, "Yes, your honor," to Leon's questions, acknowledging that the allegations were fact.

After the hearing, Martucci said that almost all the money was gone and that the Cadillac had been sold. "From what I can see, he is essentially a person without funds," Martucci said.

Lawyer Louis Martucci talks to reporters outside federal court in Washington, where his client, Leroy Holmes, pleaded guilty to money laundering.