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Native Intelligence
Missing WTU funds in millions?
(Published November 18, 2002)

By DIANA WINTHROP

Recent charges regarding financial mismanagement at the Washington Teachers Union led to a high-level shakeup on Oct. 25. WTU's powerful president Barbara Bullock, treasurer James O. Baxter and Bullock's special assistant, Gwendolyn Hemphill, have all been forced from office and an investigation by James Cooper of the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI is in full swing. In addition to their union offices, Baxter served as the labor relations and collective bargaining director for both Mayor Anthony A. Williams and former mayor Marion Barry, and Hemphill served as both vice president of the D.C. Democratic Party and co-chairman of the Williams re-election campaign. They were all forced from office by their national union, the American Federation of Teachers, under union bylaws.

This sad state of events ends the tenure of one of the more controversial labor union presidents in the District. After winning election on a platform of higher pay for competent teachers, Bullock reneged on competency requirements as a contract item. She immediately ran roughshod over the union's Political Action Committee and was criticized by school board candidates for shutting down the endorsement process. She handpicked some candidates without a formal selection process and in 1996 withheld all endorsements as the union poured money into an ill-fated effort to elect Baxter to the D.C. City Council.

Bullock, a staunch supporter of Mayor Williams, has been praised by teachers for winning a landmark 19 percent pay increase over three years, making D.C. teachers' wages more competitive with surrounding jurisdictions. But Williams reneged on finding additional money to cover the pay raise and instead took the first year's $15 million out of the school system's overburdened operating and capital budgets. That led to cuts in classroom resources, and delayed construction and renovations for some crumbling public schools.

Bullock also has been criticized by teachers for her cronyism and practice of "the end justifies the means" school of politics. She was legendary for "ruling by her own rules." Her supporters outnumbered her detractors in her early tenure but in recent years the voices of her opponents became louder. Now with the U.S. Attorney's Office investigating myriad financial irregularities, including millions of dollars of questionable credit card charges and unauthorized outlays, she has come to an ignominious end. It is this culture of corruption, which has plagued the union for years, that now has many teachers asking how nearly $3 million has gone missing.

Some of Bullock's supporters say a dues overcharge of about $800,000 must just be a "bookkeeping mistake." Critics say the overcharges were intentional on the part of the union. However, they all agree that the WTU was in arrears in paying its dues to the national organization and would have been barred from attending the national convention last summer unless it paid up. AFT officials would not return calls or comment because of the pending investigation. But one WTU source contends the back dues problem has been going on for years. The national union became more troubled when it discovered through an audit that "financial irregularities were rampant throughout the books." One former union employee told me the WTU under Bullock had a terrible reputation for paying its bills. So where is the money going?

According to Steven Seleznow, the chief operating officer for D.C. Public Schools, the school system operates as a fiduciary agent which receives instructions on deductions from the union. "The school system has no say, control or influence over the finances of the union," says Seleznow. "We only provide the union with the mechanical process to gather the money and then we turn it over to them." DCPS sources confirmed the FBI has begun a review of teacher payroll information.

The finishing touch on this cauldron of corruption leads us to James O. Baxter, the treasurer of the WTU since 1994. Since being elected as treasurer, Baxter has not been on the union's payroll but has been paid a "professional or consultant's fee while serving as a full-time employee of the city as director of labor relations and collective bargaining from early 1997 until the fall of 2000. A WTU source said, "I don't see any conflict of interest at all" because Baxter "in his capacity as labor negotiator for the city did not negotiate for the teachers' union. The teachers union negotiates with the school board."

But what places Baxter under suspicion, say Bullock defenders who I think are looking for someone to blame, was his working knowledge of the numerous employee codes used to determine various pay levels in the city. Baxter needed a working knowledge of the system to perform his job as labor negotiator even if he didn't perform a similar task for the teachers' union. The teachers' union apparently knew the location and personnel information for every teacher in the school system, allowing it to obtain all of their dues money and then some. Bullock's people contend that any overcharges would have been Baxter's responsibility.

While Baxter has remained unavailable for comment, his advocates say an atmosphere of unbridled spending led to efforts to balance the books at any cost on the backs of the District's long-underpaid and overworked teachers.

District teachers deserve an honest accounting for their hard-earned money and honest union officials who don't treat the union's money as their personal bank account.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator