Gwendolyn Hemphill wasn’t eager about doing time in federal prison. But it appears the former office manager of the Washington Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, is headed that way, now that her claim of mental illness has fallen by the wayside. On May 22, Hemphill, 64, received an 11-year sentence for her role in a scheme that embezzled well over $4 million from union coffers, using much of that money to buy luxury goods. She isn’t likely to keep what merchandise she has left, since she’s been ordered by the court to make restitution. Though her attorney said she plans to appeal the sentence, such a move should prove yet another exercise in futility.
From 1995 until well into 2002, Hemphill, along with WTU President Barbara Bullock, Treasurer James O. Baxter II and several associates, had stolen and/or laundered at least $4.6 million from the local. They devised shell corporations, made out duplicate salary checks to themselves, and wrote phony checks to pay personal bills. Baxter, like Hemphill, last August 31 was convicted by a jury on nearly two dozen charges; he is to be sentenced on June 5. Hemphill told U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon that she participated in the scheme to please Bullock, whom she described as “a mother figure.” Bullock herself had pleaded guilty in late 2003 to masterminding the scam and is serving a nine-year federal prison sentence.
Hemphill originally had been scheduled for sentencing last December. She managed to delay her day of reckoning by making a rather startling claim: She had not been mentally competent during the time she engaged in the thefts and cover-ups. Backed by her attorney, Nancy Luque, and a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Neil Blumberg, Hemphill claimed she suffered from psychotic delusions which included confrontations by “a small dark-skinned person with a thin Roman nose, small lips and a spear, who is dressed like a native African.” The prosecution, not about to take this story at face value, retorted, “Every cent that was pilfered, and every cent that was laundered, occurred with her direct handwritten direction, participation or authorization.” Hemphill eventually gave up on that defense. At her sentencing hearing, she stated she was “deeply sorry and ashamed” – an odd admission for someone planning an appeal. Current WTU President George Parker viewed the sentencing as “a step forward for our teachers as we put this unfortunate chapter of fraud and deceit in our union’s history behind us.” (Washington Post, 5/23/06; other sources).