The summer-long Washington Teachers' Union embezzlement trial reached its final stage yesterday as prosecutors recounted all the fancy clothes, artwork and luxuries they accuse former union officers of buying with union money -- and all the methods they say officers used to hide at least $4.6 million in theft.
Now that closing arguments are underway in the largest embezzlement case in many Washingtonians' memories, the jury is days away from being asked to decide the guilt or innocence of two people well regarded in the District's Democratic political circles: former union office manager Gwendolyn M. Hemphill, co-chair of Mayor Anthony A. Williams's 2002 reelection campaign, and former union treasurer James O. Baxter II, once the mayor's full-time liaison to labor unions.
Both pleaded not guilty to charges that they joined in a criminal conspiracy to loot the union over a seven-year period, starting in the mid-1990s and ending in 2002, and to recruit others to help them launder union funds so they could continue stealing. Each could face 15 to 21 years in prison if convicted.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeannie Rhee told the jury yesterday that Baxter and Hemphill devised shell corporations, made out duplicate salary checks for themselves and wrote phony checks to pretend they used their money for personal bills -- all to conceal their purchases of furs, dental work and Wizards tickets from the dues paid by thousands of D.C. public school teachers and retirees.
"The defendants did a good job of hiding what they were doing," Rhee said. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, is the time for a different kind of accounting, an honest accounting of what each defendant did. That accounting is going to be done by you."
A defense attorney for Baxter told the jury that the government had failed to prove that the tens of thousands of dollars in box-seat sports tickets, meals and artwork that Baxter charged to the union were not authorized purchases or for legitimate union business.
"You can't just proclaim it -- you've got to prove it," said Baxter's attorney, Michele Roberts.
Defense attorneys for Hemphill and for a third defendant, former union tax preparer James A. Goosby Jr., are expected to finish their closing arguments Monday. Goosby is charged with furthering the conspiracy by filing false tax and financial statements as the union's part-time accountant. He faces four to five years in prison if found guilty.
The jury could begin deliberating as early as Tuesday, when U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon, the presiding judge, said he expects to give the jury instructions.
The embezzlement stunned Washington politicians, teachers and longtime community members when revealed in the winter of 2002 -- because of the size of the theft and the prominent people accused. An outside audit by the parent union that year found about $5 million in union spending unaccounted for.
Raids at officers' homes turned up truckloads of luxury items and records of personal services the government said were purchased with union money. In Hemphill's case, the government said, the items included dental implants for her and her husband, a plasma television in the couple's basement and gourmet catering for family events.
The stealing went on for seven years, the government charged, but unraveled when the union could barely pay office rent in April 2002 and Baxter suggested that the officers raise money by getting the schools to deduct $160 from each teacher's paycheck instead of the usual $16. Some teachers complained, triggering the audit.
The trial has featured dramatic points as well as long, boring stretches. A star government witness was former union president Barbara A. Bullock, who pleaded guilty to helping lead the $5 million embezzlement and is serving a nine-year prison sentence. On the stand, she admitted to charging nearly $1 million on the union's American Express card for things that struck her fancy, including custom-made dresses, an antique silverware set costing $50,000 and furs of several styles. When asked on the stand whether it was fair to say that she liked to shop, she disagreed: "No, that's not fair. I lovvve to shop."
Former union chauffeur Leroy Holmes admitted to cashing $400,000 in union checks and giving the cash to Bullock or Hemphill so they could later pretend they were using their money to pay personal charges on the union's American Express card. He testified that the thefts were part of a "big lie," and he urged everyone involved to confess their guilt.
At times, the government has struggled to keep jurors' attention as it has laid out a complicated paper trail and tried to connect the dots of each of the union's financial transactions from 1998 to 2002. Additionally, repeated objections by defense counsel have drawn some rolled eyes and annoyed glances from some jurors.
Yesterday, Judge Leon urged defense attorneys to interrupt the closing arguments only with great caution, to avoid potentially irritating the jury to the detriment of their clients' cases.
"This jury's patience has been tested to its limits," the judge said.
For many teachers in the D.C. public school system, closure in the case has been a long time coming. Agents raided union offices and officers' homes in December 2002, but it wasn't until November 2003 that the U.S. attorney's office obtained grand jury indictments against them.
The trial was repeatedly stalled by legal skirmishes and disputes -- and began 18 months after the indictments. Defense counsel has noted its plans to appeal if necessary.