No one suspected that Barbara A. Bullock might be capable of stealing millions from the pockets of teachers—the very people for whom she had advocated over the past 25 years.
Now, Ms. Bullock is a central figure in a federal investigation into whether she did just that, and is a target of two related civil lawsuits as well. Though no criminal charges have been filed against her or others who are under scrutiny, the apparent irregularities prompted the American Federation of Teachers last week to take over the local affiliate she led in the nation’s capital.
Ms. Bullock had already been forced to resign as the president of the Washington Teachers’ Union in September and has not been available for comment.
Often decked out in full-length fur coats and accompanied by her chauffeur, Ms. Bullock drew attention with her distinctive appearance. But as the top officer of the union, she was generally perceived as fighting for better raises and working conditions for her 5,000 members in the District of Columbia public schools.
Ms. Bullock and two other former high-level employees of the union are now suspected of having embezzled or improperly used more than $5 million of the WTU’s funds. An AFT audit of the Washington union maintains that Ms. Bullock alone had redirected about $2 million to finance her shopping habits and penchant for high living since 1996.
While Ms. Bullock has remained silent, a murky and contradictory picture of the former union president is developing. She had held that post since 1994.
District of Columbia school officials could not locate Ms. Bullock’s personnel file last week to provide details about her employment history. But those who know her believe she had taught elementary school in the city.
Later, in the late 1970s, she apparently became a union field representative and worked for many years under the Washington union’s longtime president, William H. Simons. Mr. Simons declined to comment last week.
Ms. Bullock ran for the top leadership post in 1993. According to an article in The Washington Post, she attacked then-President Jimmie C. Jackson in her campaign literature for alleged financial irregularities.
Ms. Bullock lost the election, but the AFT invalidated the results because of voting irregularities. Ms. Bullock won the 1994 election by fewer than 100 votes.
“We will work to restore to members the rights, benefits, and trust that have been lost under the present administration,” Ms. Bullock was quoted in a Post article as saying after that election.
As the head of an influential labor organization, Ms. Bullock associated with the movers and shakers on the local Washington scene. An imposing woman, standing roughly 6 feet tall, Ms. Bullock wore bold jewelry, wigs, and custom-made clothes, accented by manicured nails and tinted glasses.
She took great care to cultivate her look. According to an affidavit filed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which seized clothing, jewelry, artwork, and other items from her home in December, her assistant’s son-in-law claimed she paid him for advising her on clothing purchases. (“Alleged Theft From D.C. Union Yields Probe,” Jan. 8, 2003.)
“The purse matched the shoes, matched the coat, matched everything,” said one source.
Some teachers and education observers considered Ms. Bullock to have been a competent and honest voice for her members, while others found her antagonistic and ineffective.
Jean Boulden, a teacher at the city’s Bruce-Monroe Elementary School, admired her tenacity: “Bullock was like a bull. She had the right name. She took a stand and turned a situation to favor her. She had excellent leadership skills.”
But Virginia Walden-Ford, the executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, described Ms. Bullock as a rambling speaker and an ineffective leader.
Under her leadership, Ms. Walden-Ford noted, the union did not mount much of a fight over the city’s rapidly growing charter schools. A 1999 union protest opposing the conversion of a public school to charter status fizzled when only Ms. Bullock and six other union members attended. “I never took her seriously,” she said.
People who dealt with Ms. Bullock also offered a mixed picture of the union president, who was paid a salary of $107,000.
Franklin L. Smith described Ms. Bullock as antagonistic and untrustworthy and the union itself as weak.
“I never felt that [Ms. Bullock’s] statements about children and teachers were as sincere as people perceived them to be,” added Mr. Smith, who was the superintendent in the nation’s capital from 1991 to 1996. He is now a vice president with Lightspan Inc., a San Diego-based educational software and technology company.
In addition, Mr. Smith said, it was clear that Ms. Bullock believed that her alliance with the city and the mayor’s office was more valuable than her relationships with school officials.
Ms. Bullock, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2000, gave thousands of dollars to the Democratic Party that year using union credit cards, according to the AFT audit.
But Iris J. Toyer, the co-chairwoman of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, said Ms. Bullock was always capable of articulating teachers’ concerns, adding that she secured a good raise for teachers in 2001—19 percent over three years.
Still, within the union, Ms. Bullock had her critics.
Jeff Bale, a Lincoln Middle School teacher and union representative, said Ms. Bullock became belligerent when questioned during membership meetings and rarely visited schools.
“The attitude for many was that people have been using WTU funds as a cash cow for years,” he said.
Staff Writer Julie Blair contributed to this report.