The embezzlement trial of former Washington Teachers' Union officials opened yesterday with prosecutors describing three top leaders as a team that stole from the union's bank accounts until they were nearly empty.
Prosecutors said former president Barbara A. Bullock, former office manager Gwendolyn Hemphill and former treasurer James O. Baxter II cashed union checks for personal expenses, went on lavish spending sprees with union credit cards and then hatched various plans to conceal their theft.
The three schemed to keep the union afloat so they could continue stealing, prosecutors said, getting caught after they conspired to deduct $16 in dues from teachers' weekly paychecks -- rather than $1.60 -- to pay union debts.
"It was a house of cards," Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Alexis told the jury in U.S. District Court. "They propped it up . . . so they could steal some more."
Bullock pleaded guilty in 2003 to her part in the embezzlement and is serving a nine-year prison term. Hemphill and Baxter are on trial, along with James Goosby, a former union accountant. Goosby is not charged with stealing money, but he is accused of helping to hide the thefts by filing phony financial reports.
"That's why Mr. Goosby's here," said Alexis, pointing to the defendant in an opening statement to the jury. "The union officials employed accountants and bookkeepers they knew would keep that secret."
After an external audit uncovered the problem in 2002, nearly $5 million was deemed missing. In raids of union officials' homes and offices, FBI agents found designer clothes, wigs, furs, artwork and a financial trail that linked union money to personal payments for cars, trips and courtside tickets to Wizards' basketball games.
Defense attorneys for Hemphill, Baxter and Goosby said their clients are innocent and did not intentionally steal anything. They blamed Bullock as the mastermind of the operation. Bullock, they said, tricked or forced the others into whatever actions they took. The defense said the others signed off on paperwork and financial forms prepared or verified as true by others, usually the union president.
"Mr. Baxter and I aren't going to try to suggest to you that there wasn't a lot of thieving going on at this union," said Michele Roberts, Baxter's attorney. "Oh, yes, there was plenty of thieving there, big-time thieving. But Mr. Baxter wasn't involved in it. He wasn't even aware of it."
Nancy Luque, who represents Hemphill, said her client was a "low-level employee," a secretary who "walked into a culture of greed." She described Hemphill as a pawn of Bullock's and called the former president the "kingpin" of the embezzlement.
Robert C. Bonsib, Goosby's attorney, said his client was never involved in a conspiracy to hide anything.
Roberts said Baxter trusted others' assertions about the accuracy of financial records, mostly Bullock's, when he helped perform some "ceremonial" financial duties at the union and signed off on various reports.
"The president, Barbara Bullock, insisted he do something he now regrets: sign blank checks," Roberts said.
The unchecked theft of union funds infuriated teachers. Bullock's acknowledgment of guilt provided some closure, but many teachers are anxious to see what happens in this trial before Judge Richard J. Leon.
Hemphill had been a high-profile leader in the reelection campaign of Mayor Anthony A. William (D). Baxter, while treasurer of the union, had a job as the District's labor liaison.
Alexis told the jury that much of the prosecution's case will be based on financial documents and the testimony of cooperating witnesses who have pleaded guilty in the seven-year-long embezzlement. One is Leroy Holmes, a former handyman at the union who became Bullock's chauffeur. Holmes told prosecutors that he agreed to cash union checks and then deposited them in Bullock's personal bank account.
"And he became the happiest chauffeur on the planet, earning nearly $125,000 a year," Alexis said.