In some Jan. 18 editions, an editorial misidentified Esther Hankerson. She is interim president of the Washington Teachers' Union. (Published 1/21/03)
THE GROWING SCALE of the alleged misappropriation of Washington Teachers' Union funds is simply breathtaking. First, an FBI affidavit charged that well in excess of $2 million in union money had been converted to personal use by former WTU president Barbara A. Bullock, Ms. Bullock's former assistant Gwendolyn Hemphill, former WTU treasurer James O. Baxter II and others. The allegations in the FBI document were enough to leave the town slack-jawed. This week, however, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) filed a federal lawsuit against Ms. Bullock, Ms. Hemphill, Mr. Baxter and five other people that accuses them of misappropriating, misusing and converting for personal use, as well as the unauthorized use of others, "sums in excess of $5 million" between 1996 and 2002. A forensic investigation conducted by the AFT indicated that if the auditors had been able to obtain complete information for 1999, "the amounts stated in our findings may be higher and the increase may be substantial."
It is, of course, important to note that everyone has the presumption of innocence and that no one has been formally charged. Still, it may be asked, how could such an allegedly massive misappropriation of union funds occur over such a long a period of time and under the noses of so many people, including the union's board of directors, the union's members and the American Federation of Teachers, which is the parent organization? It's not as though there weren't sufficient reasons for people in positions of responsibility to raise questions. For instance:
* The AFT's constitution requires its affiliates to audit or review their finances every two years and to submit a written report available to affiliate members. The FBI affidavit says that from 1998 through 2002, the union, through president Bullock and treasurer Baxter, failed to produce such reports. Why didn't alarms sound at AFT headquarters and among WTU board members?
* Ms. Bullock employed through WTU a personal chauffeur, Leroy Holmes, who reportedly drove her between the WTU and home and for personal shopping trips. His presence was no secret, though no one seemed to question Ms. Bullock's need for a chauffeur who was allegedly paid more than $100,000 annually, owned three Cadillacs, and from late 1998 to mid-2002 was issued checks payable to himself that were cashed in the approximate amount of $1.2 million.
* The Independence Federal Savings Bank handled a number of Mr. Holmes's transactions. The auditors claim the nature and extent of the transactions -- checks cashed for just under $10,000, sometimes on the same day or within days of one another -- appeared structured to evade federal reporting requirements. "It is unusual for a bank to fail to file such reports," the investigation notes.
* Esther Hankerson, WTU general vice president under Ms. Bullock and now interim president, stated that in a number of instances her signature had been forged on WTU checks, according to the investigation. The report also said Ms. Hankerson confronted Ms. Bullock, who admitted forging Ms. Hankerson's signature and apologizing. "To our knowledge," states the report, "[Ms.] Hankerson never reported the incident to anyone at the WTU (other than Bullock), the WTU Board or the WTU membership, or any other appropriate authority."
So how could it have gone on for so long?