Teaching Profession

Union Local Loses Control Of Operations

By Bess Keller — January 29, 2003 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 10 min read
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Corrected: This story underrepresented the proportion of District of Columbia teachers who have received outright reimbursements for a $144 overcharge in union dues. Members who request reimbursements continue to receive them, and, as of last week, almost half had received the money owed them.

Appalled by official reports of mink coats, Tiffany silver, and a Bahamas vacation bought with at least $5 million in dues allegedly embezzled from Washington teachers by local union leaders, the American Federation of Teachers took over its affiliate in the nation’s capital last week.

Washington teacher Cynthia Mosteller

Cynthia Mosteller is one of many Washington teachers who feel betrayed by union leaders suspected of embezzling their funds.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

The takeover marks the first time that the AFT has imposed an outside administrator on one of its more than 2,500 locals. The governing board of the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, a 42-member body that includes many local presidents, unanimously approved the appointment of an AFT regional director, George C. Springer, as the temporary head of the Washington Teachers’ Union.

After weeks of revelations stemming from a criminal investigation conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a civil one pursued by the AFT, many teachers in the District of Columbia school system saw no alternative to the move.

But many also asked how the parent organization had failed to spot the alleged theft, which a detailed audit commissioned by the AFT suggests went on for six years and diverted roughly a third of the dues that members paid.

“I think at some point, [the parent union was] negligent,” said Jacqueline Yamin, a 5th grade teacher at Thomson Elementary School in Washington.

Ms. Yamin, like other teachers, described her colleagues as shocked and disbelieving. “People just sit around the school and shake their heads,” she said. “I think everyone is upset about the betrayal for a mink coat.”

The targets of the investigations are former WTU President Barbara A. Bullock; her one-time assistant, Gwendolyn M. Hemphill; former Treasurer James O. Baxter II; and others who are relatives or associates of the three. Ms. Bullock, Ms. Hemphill, and Mr. Baxter all left last fall under pressure from union officials. No criminal charges have been filed in the case.

The AFT, however, filed a civil lawsuit two weeks ago under federal racketeering and other labor laws, seeking restitution from the three leaders and the others. A second lawsuit, filed by a Washington teacher, charges that the local’s 21-member executive board and the AFT had failed in their oversight. It asks for a court-appointed independent party to run the union, a request a U.S. District Court judge said last week he would consider.

A Tarnished Reputation

At stake beyond the finger-pointing is the future health of the 5,000-member local in an urban school district where many teachers already feel beleaguered.

“We’re constantly fighting a stereotype about the D.C. public schools,” said Cynthia Mosteller, who teaches 8th grade history at Deal Junior High School. “This destroys the image of all the good things we’re trying to do.”

The scandal also makes it harder to sell union membership to new teachers, who already tend to be more resistant than teachers once were, some suggested.

“A young teacher stopped me today and said, ‘Should I join the union again?’ That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that,” 34-year classroom veteran Jean Boulden said last week.

Nor does the Washington union have much to fall back on from previous years. Its reputation in the parent organization has not been shining, nor has its performance impressed some teachers who have tried to be active in the group. Others, though, have described Ms. Bullock as an effective fighter for teacher pay raises. (“Former Union President Is at Center of Probe,” this issue.)

Until the resignation of the three officials last fall, the local had gone for several years without attracting the 100-member quorum necessary to conduct official business, including consideration of its more than $3 million budget.

“It seemed as though the union was more of a political organization than an efficiently run business, with goals and objectives and [a] measure of effectiveness,” said George Parker, a math teacher at Eliot Junior High School, who twice ran against Ms. Bullock for president and plans to seek that office again. Ms. Bullock was elected to five two-year terms as president.

The union has long been a force in city politics. As an early supporter of Mayor Anthony A. Williams, the local had forged particularly strong ties with the current administration. Until recently, Ms. Hemphill, the president’s assistant, was the co-chair of the mayor’s election campaign and the executive director of the city’s Democratic Committee. She also worked for the two previous mayors, including service as Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr.'s labor liaison for most of his tenure.

Ms. Hemphill and Ms. Bullock purportedly sought to influence contracts and appointments in the city administration, and District of Columbia election officials are investigating whether the union exceeded its allowable contribution to Mayor Williams’ campaign and met reporting requirements.

Mr. Parker and other teachers, who have formed a loose “reform” network, say the top leaders cultivated a with-us-or-against-us atmosphere that discouraged criticism.

Late Dues

Factiousness also marked the local. Ms. Bullock herself was elected for the first time in 1994 in an election run by the U.S. Department of Labor after an earlier vote was thrown out for irregularities. Just before Ms. Bullock was sworn in, the AFT filed suit against her opponent for allegedly taking records and other items from the local’s office, and a federal judge forced return of the articles.

“It has been apparent to me for many years, if not a decade, that it is a troubled local,” said Adam Urbanski, the longtime leader of the Rochester Teachers Association in New York and a member of the AFT’s executive council, the group that approved the takeover last week.

The trouble extended to mandatory reporting and to dues payment. AFT rules adopted in 1994 require locals to be audited independently every two years, with results provided to members and to the parent organization. But the last audit from the Washington local came in 1995. In 2000, the union stopped paying its monthly dues—about $50,000—to the national organization. Ms. Bullock promised to pay the money many times, but as the union’s 2002 national convention approached, the dues were still outstanding. An AFT official told her that unless the money was paid, Washington union members could not attend the Las Vegas meeting in July.

AFT veterans say it is not uncommon for locals to be late with their dues, and a spokesman for the parent union said officials assumed the local was holding on to the dues to collect extra interest. The dues were subsequently paid.

Then, at the AFT convention, complaints began to surface about dues overbilling on back pay. Somehow, $160 had been deducted from Washington teachers’ paychecks rather than $16, the correct amount. Putting together the large overcharge and the dues payment, which were roughly equal, AFT officials became suspicious, and the local’s general vice president, Esther S. Hankerson, called for an audit.

The AFT’s internal audit led to a more detailed financial probe in the fall, which, in turn, prompted federal prosecutors to seek help from the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, the Labor Department, and the District of Columbia inspector general’s office.

The picture that emerges from court documents is of an organization in financial disarray, paying for three of its leaders to bask in luxury items and services, while neglecting rent, phone, and medical-insurance bills. The officers also failed to put money in a union employees’ retirement fund, the detailed audit alleges.

Ms. Bullock, the president, for instance, used a personal driver to take her not only to union appointments, but also to shopping malls and to a custom dressmaker near Baltimore. She charged about $500,000 worth of custom-made clothes, all at union expense, according to the audit.

Ms. Hemphill and Mr. Baxter apparently bought fine art, designer clothing, electronics, and trips with union money, the audit and an FBI investigation concluded.

The largess extended to family members as well, who, in some cases, appear to have been fraudulently hired for services such as party planning, according to the documents. In one case, alleges the AFT’s lawsuit, the union apparently footed the bill for Ms. Hemphill’s daughter and son-in-law to vacation in the Bahamas.

The three leaders used union credit cards for personal expenses and drew on union bank accounts for their own purposes, sometimes scratching out a check payee’s name and replacing it with that of Ms. Bullock’s chauffeur, the documents allege.

The auditors say they believe that at least $5 million has been misused, and that the final accounting could well be considerably more.

Corruption Contained?

While reeling at that amount, AFT officials and other union advocates stress that any such crimes would be an aberration.

“I’ve heard of some cases where people were giving themselves breaks that weren’t right, but something of this magnitude is just unheard of” among teachers’ unions, said Al Fondy, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and a vice president of the AFT.

Julia Koppich, an expert on teachers’ unions and a former employee of the San Francisco union, agrees. “Graft and corruption—teachers’ unions have almost none of that,” she asserted.

Relatively few such incidents have been documented.

At least eight former teachers’ union leaders have been convicted of embezzlement since 1998, though the amounts stolen have been far less than the alleged sums involving the Washington union, according to the National Legal and Policy Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog organization based in Falls Church, Va., that tracks union corruption nationwide.

The most recent incident occurred in Georgia, where the former president of the Henry teachers’ union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, was convicted of embezzling $39,000 last November. The most expensive known crime took place in Yonkers, N.Y., where the treasurer of the AFT affiliate stole more than $215,000 over 27 years, ending in the late 1990s.

While unions such as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters have a much higher incidence of trouble, corruption among teachers’ unions “is a problem,” said David P. Kendrick, the director of the National Legal and Policy Center’s Organized Labor Accountability Project.

Corruption in teachers’ unions is generally difficult to uncover, he said, in part because federal law requires only those unions that represent private-sector workers—a group that includes both the AFT and the WTUto file annual financial reports. Many unions do not fall into that category.

And, as the Washington case may show, reporting isn’t necessarily enough to flag potential wrongdoing. The local’s officials filed reports mandated by the Labor Department with false or incomplete numbers, according to the audit commissioned by the AFT. And Mr. Baxter, the former treasurer, reportedly provided at least a few quarterly financial reports to the local’s three trustees, who saw nothing wrong with them.

In most cases when a union criminal is caught, Mr. Kendrick noted, union members find something amiss and call authorities.

Mike Antonucci, a teachers’ union critic, says he believes much corruption goes undiscovered because of the culture of unions, which emphasize solidarity. As a result, he suggests, people are even more reluctant to blow whistles on their colleagues than in business.

Alex Wohl, a spokesman for the 1.2 million-member AFT, said the parent union would probably not tighten its current oversight requirements, nor would it seek more leverage over locals to make sure they comply. The AFT was founded as an umbrella organization that values the autonomy of its locals, he explained.

Some observers have said that in that regard, the NEA, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, has an advantage over its sister organization. With a different structure that puts more power into the hands of its often-large state affiliates, they say, it may be less vulnerable to prolonged corruption at the local level.

The NEA declined to comment on the troubles of the AFT and its affiliate.

Meanwhile, about two-thirds of the Washington Teachers’ Union members will receive no outright reimbursement for the $144 dues overcharge, but rather will have the amount applied to future dues. Back in the summer, then-President Bullock said reimbursements would be made only to those members who asked for them; about a third did.

The AFT, which began running many of the local’s finances after Ms. Bullock and the others departed in the fall, oversaw a $250,000 loan in November that will help keep the union’s operations going, now under the supervision of Mr. Springer, a former president of the Connecticut state affiliate. But, said Mr. Wohl, there is not enough money to extend the reimbursements to everybody.

Staff Writer Karla Scoon Reid contributed to this report.

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