The American Federation of Teachers, which is running the Washington Teachers' Union because of allegations that its former leaders stole more than $5 million, is considering whether to continue employing a top local official who failed to alert authorities after discovering that her signature had been forged on a check.
During a meeting yesterday with Washington Post reporters and editors, AFT officials said that Esther S. Hankerson, the former general vice president of the local union, is working under the administrator installed by the AFT and is continuing to draw her previous salary.
Some teachers and union activists have questioned why Hankerson is still in office. They said she should have known that former union president Barbara A. Bullock and others were misspending union money, as alleged in an FBI affidavit. Hankerson, who became the union's interim president after Bullock resigned under pressure last fall, has denied knowledge of any wrongdoing.
An AFT forensic audit released last month said that in 1997, Hankerson received a call from the union's bank saying it appeared that Bullock had forged Hankerson's signature on an $8,000 union check payable to Bullock. According to the audit, Hankerson told the bank to allow the check to be cashed. Although she confronted Bullock, and Bullock acknowledged having forged Hankerson's signature, Hankerson did not report the incident to anyone, the audit said.
Yesterday, AFT President Sandra Feldman said she recognized that some union members were upset that Hankerson remained in office. "I think there's a real question here, and some decisions are going to have to be made," Feldman said.
However, George C. Springer, the administrator installed by the AFT three weeks ago to temporarily run the 5,000-member union, said Hankerson is serving a valuable role and helping his effort to rebuild the union's structure. He said she does not have access to union funds.
"She's been enormously helpful to me, because she has the greatest institutional memory," Springer said. "She has a lot of experience in the professional development area."
He said that he was unsure of Hankerson's salary but that he had not changed it since taking over the union. According to documents filed by the Washington Teachers' Union with the U.S. Department of Labor in 2001, Hankerson was being paid $87,138 a year.
Hankerson did not respond to a message left on her cell phone last night.
Some teachers said they support Hankerson, while others said that her continued presence at the local union is insulting to teachers.
"It's a slap in the face to the membership," said George Parker, a D.C. teacher who previously challenged Bullock for the presidency of the local union. "It appears they come in with a heavy-handed approach to the membership, suspending the constitution . . . . At the same time, they are approaching the leadership who has some responsibility for this with a soft hand, by maintaining Hankerson."
Janise Mead, a teacher at Backus Middle School, said she supports Hankerson's continued role at the union. "I have a lot of faith in Esther Hankerson," she said. "She has always been honest, and she's been a true teacher."
In papers filed in December in U.S. District Court, the FBI said that former top union officials -- including Bullock, her assistant Gwendolyn M. Hemphill and treasurer James O. Baxter II -- and others misspent more than $2 million in union funds. The AFT audit put the total at more than $5 million.
A criminal investigation is ongoing, and one person has been charged: Bullock's former driver, Leroy Holmes, who pleaded guilty to money laundering.
AFT officials also said yesterday they believe that the local union paid Hemphill's personal cell phone bills. Springer said a recent bill arrived for $6,000 that he believes was for personal phone calls made by Hemphill and her relatives. He was unsure how many phones were involved or how long the union had paid such bills.
A source close to Hemphill said that the union purchased the cell phones for its staff in Hemphill's name and that they were used for union business. Hemphill declined to comment.