Gwendolyn M. Hemphill was a grandmother who dutifully did her work as executive assistant at the Washington Teachers' Union and didn't question her imperious boss's extravagant spending of union funds, a defense lawyer said yesterday.
But lead defense attorney Nancy Luque said Hemphill simply wasn't capable of masterminding -- or even joining -- a scheme to loot the union of nearly $5 million over the course of seven years, as the government has charged. It was the "evil" former union president, Barbara A. Bullock, who did all that, Luque said during closing arguments.
"Mrs. Hemphill's job was to do what Ms. Bullock told her to do," Luque said. "She used her authority and her intimidating behavior to get people to do everything she wanted them to do. . . . I pity the fool who has the nerve to ask this woman about her spending."
Hemphill's account of her innocence as Bullock's chief deputy comes at the end of 41 days in the teachers union embezzlement trial, a local drama involving eye-boggling theft. Hemphill, a former chairman of Mayor Anthony A. Williams's reelection campaign, has two co-defendants, former union treasurer James O. Baxter II and former part-time union accountant James A. Goosby Jr. They are accused of conspiring with Bullock to empty the union's bank accounts for their own gain. Hemphill and Baxter face as much 21 years in jail if convicted. Goosby faces up to five years.
Government prosecutors said Hemphill and Baxter reaped numerous benefits at union expense. The union paid for Baxter's box seat tickets for the Washington Wizards and kept sending him his union salary long after he left the union's employ, they have argued. It paid for Hemphill and her husband to get $29,000 in dental implants, a plasma television for their home recreation room and free catering for a family wedding.
Also yesterday, Robert Bonsib, Goosby's defense attorney, argued that government prosecutors had presented little evidence in the 12-week trial that linked his client to a theft or coverup. Bonsib said government prosecutors should be ashamed for trying to imply that Goosby is guilty by associating him with the charges against two top union officers and for suggesting that his accounting pay was "his cut" for helping to hide the stealing.
Bonsib insisted his client might have been gullible, at the worst, for believing former union officials who told him what to write on the union's tax and financial reports. Bonsib noted that Goosby didn't enjoy spoils of this conspiracy but was paid $60,000 over 12 months to provide regular accounting for the union.
"Mr. Goosby didn't get a fur, he didn't get a TV, he didn't get a piece of silver," Bonsib said. "He didn't get squat -- except for the payment that was agreed to in his standard, aboveboard contract."
Last week, Baxter's attorney said that the government had failed to prove that the items that Baxter had received were not authorized by other union officials or not for legitimate union business.
Today, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon is expected to give jurors instructions before sending them to deliberate behind closed doors. There have been signs that the 12 jurors and three alternates have grown weary of the case, with some closing their eyes in the afternoon and others rolling their eyes, usually at defense attorneys' comments.
The biggest player in the case is in prison. Bullock pleaded guilty in 2003 to leading a conspiracy to steal at least $4.6 million from the union from 1996 to 2002. She is serving a nine-year sentence. In testimony, she repeatedly accused Hemphill and Baxter of helping her steal from the union and helping cover up the theft, but she said she barely knew Goosby or whether he played a role.
Luque said yesterday that Bullock is trying to reduce her time in prison by accusing others. She said Hemphill had an established reputation in the community and no past record of criminal activity or deceptive behavior.
"What evidence did you hear that makes you think a well-respected member of the community would turn on a dime to a life of crime?" Luque asked.