Former Washington Teachers' Union president Barbara A. Bullock recounted in court yesterday how she dropped tens of thousands of union dollars a day in casual shopping and how she and her two fellow union leaders milked the union bank accounts to buy anything their hearts desired.
In her fullest account to date of the $5 million embezzlement of the union funds, Bullock described how she, former office manager Gwendolyn Hemphill and former treasurer James O. Baxter II never blinked at how much an item cost, focusing only on how to hide what they were doing. Bullock, 70, is serving a nine-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in 2003 to her role in the embezzlement. She is the star witness in the government's prosecution of her former friends, Hemphill and Baxter.
Bullock wanted a $50,000 silver flatware set that caught her eye, she said, so she charged it to the union's American Express card. Hemphill needed a wedding catered at her home, Bullock recalled, so the catering bill went on the union card. Baxter suggested that the three get season tickets to the Washington Wizards basketball games, so they charged the union.
Throughout the hour of unabashed confessional testimony from Bullock yesterday afternoon, some jurors and spectators in U.S. District Court stared in amazement at her account of thoughtless spending sprees -- and laughed out loud at her candor.
"Miss Bullock, would it be fair to say you like to shop?" Assistant U.S. Attorney James Cooper asked.
"No, that's not fair," Bullock said. "I love to shop."
Prosecutors charge that Bullock, Hemphill and Baxter stole from the union to finance their lavish lifestyles from 1996 until teachers complained about dues overcharging and an external audit found millions of dollars missing in 2002. Defense attorneys have said that Hemphill and Baxter were unwitting pawns, either tricked or intimidated by Bullock into taking union money and concealing the theft.
Bullock told jurors yesterday that she repeatedly charged the union for whatever she liked. "I like jewelry. I like china. I like crystal. I like shoes -- you name it," she said.
She said she knew Hemphill and Baxter used the union credit card for personal purposes as well and never cautioned them about spending members' dues on themselves.
"To be honest with you, that just never crossed my mind," she said.
Jurors gawked as prosecutors brought into court some of Bullock's more extravagant purchases, including a $5,000 sterling silver champagne cooler, the $50,000 silver set she bought in a New Orleans antique shop and a mahogany-black, custom-made fur coat that she said cost roughly $40,000.
Bullock said the silver set was mailed to Hemphill's home, where she and Hemphill arranged for the bills for the union's American Express cards to be sent to avoid detection of their embezzlement. She said she never looked at the bills, which Hemphill paid, but later learned that $29,000 in dental work had been charged to her union card. She testified that Hemphill and her husband had been getting dental implants at the time of the credit charges.
While on a cruise with retired teachers in Alaska, Bullock said, she asked a shopkeeper about making her a fur coat -- complete with fur cuffs and her monogram inside. She charged it to her union credit card.
"The gentleman said, 'We can make one to your specifications,' and I said, 'Grrrrrrreat,' " Bullock recalled with a grin. "I'm tall, and everything in the store was coming up to my knees. This was full-length. Just for me."
Bullock described how Hemphill worked to conceal the luxury items they were buying at the union's expense. In one case, Bullock said, she and Hemphill's son-in-law were shopping for a fur coat for his wife, Hemphill's daughter. When they found just the right one at a boutique, the pair called Hemphill, and Hemphill said she would "take care of" buying the coat with union funds, Bullock told the jury.
"She said the owner will put it on his construction company's name," Bullock testified. "I said, 'Oh, you can do that?' Then nobody would know you purchased a fur."
At times yesterday, Bullock gave the jury a course in high fashion. Male mink pelts, she explained, are heavier than the pelts of female minks and preferable for winter wear. St. John makes the best quality designer knits.
Cooper asked whether she knew she had spent $5,000 a month at one high-end shop in Pikesville.
"When I realized . . . I thought it was crazy," she said. "But it had been done, and there wasn't anything that could change it."
Bullock's testimony is to continue Monday.
James Goosby, a former union accountant, is also on trial. He is accused of helping to hide the thefts by filing phony financial reports.