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Native Intelligence
WTU indictments expected soon
(Published September 8, 2003)

By DIANA WINTHROP

Federal indictments in the Washington Teachers Union money-laundering scandal are expected to be issued next month, according to law enforcement sources. The WTU investigation has been the focus of growing criticism of U.S. Attorney Roscoe Howard and his assistants, Tony Alexis and James Cooper of the public corruption division.

While critics have been increasingly vocal about the Justice Department allegedly dragging its feet on the investigation into activities of the WTU’s former executive board members, sources tell me the multimillion dollar paper trail was one of the most complicated ever handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in nearly 20 years.

Apparently, tracking the alleged involvement of some of Gwendolyn Hemphill’s relatives who worked for the D.C. government has further complicated the investigation. Hemphill’s daughter Cheryl Martin and her husband, Michael, also allegedly attempted to launder WTU funds by seeking to invest in apartment complexes in the District and Prince George’s County, Md.

The saddest part of this whole mess is that regardless of any successful prosecution of accused WTU officials, a good portion of the rank-and-file’s money is forever lost. No seizure of property or assets of the guilty parties will return all of the embezzled money to the teachers’ union coffers. The question I have had for months is why the American Federation of Teachers, the parent organization of the WTU, has not been penalized for failing at its fiduciary responsibility until it was too late.

Meanwhile, D.C. teachers will likely see the third year of their pay raise, despite an effort by the D.C. Board of Education to freeze their negotiated raise as part of a budget-cutting effort in July. D.C. Superior Court Judge Zoe Bush, in issuing a preliminary injunction Aug. 27 against the school board’s attempt to negate last spring’s salary step increases for teachers, said the board could not ignore the WTU’s contract. "The public interest would be best served by restraining a rule which is contrary to the Board of Education’s contractual agreements with the Unions and, as such, is unlawful and unconstitutional," the judge wrote in her order.

The looming problem, according to District III school board member Tommy Wells, is that unless the city council or Congress gives D.C. Public Schools more funds, there may be another round of teacher layoffs. Wells said the board might be forced to cut another 400 to 600 teachers to finance the $52 million pay hike that the WTU’s contract mandates on Oct. 1. The school system is slated to receive about $5 million more in fiscal 2004 funding, but that still leaves the budget $47 million short of what is needed to pay for the raises. Wells said he is pessimistic about additional funds being forthcoming and fears that the District’s public schoolchildren will be shortchanged yet again.

MORE GRUMBLING: Mayor Anthony Williams isn’t the only elected official who some voters are looking to fire (see "California puts recall in the air" in The Common Denominator’s Aug. 25 issue). Ward 6 Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose is facing similar sentiment, and it’s coming from some of the people who formerly were among her strongest supporters in the neighborhoods surrounding Capitol Hill. The recall talk appears to be growing because Ambrose, who was diagnosed in the summer of 1998 with multiple sclerosis, is being accused of incompetence by former supporters who say her failing health is affecting her ability to do the job. Ambrose, who stopped driving in 1998, has poor eyesight – a result of her illness – and can only read printed materials when typed in large letters. Critics say she seems disconnected from the job, and they attribute it to her failing health. Ambrose, who was re-elected in 2002, has three more years left in her term, and though she has said she will not run again, her critics complain the situation will only become worse.

The dissatisfaction in her job performance centers around redevelopment issues in Ward 6, where voters in some neighborhoods are unhappy over her handling of redevelopment such as the Southeast Federal Center, Southwest Waterfront, Waterside Mall, Reservation 13, the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg Hope VI project, H Street revitalization and the Boys Town debacle. Neighborhood activists say Ambrose is not paying attention to detail. While complaints from one group or another probably aren’t enough for a successful recall effort, taken together, these complaints might mean trouble now that dissatisfied voters nationwide are viewing recall as a way of firing elected officials.

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The writer is a native Washingtonian. Contact her at diana@thecommondenominator.com with your news tips.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator