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WUSA-TV reporter Bruce Johnson has been on a roll. The 27-year veteran of local journalism has nabbed exclusive after exclusive in the unraveling Washington Teachers’ Union scandal. The scoops have earned him several hard-to-come-by reporting credits in later editions of the Washington Post.
On the evening of Saturday, Jan. 11, Johnson broke the first story that linked teachers’-union funds to the mayor’s office. In a Channel 9 exclusive, Johnson reported that former WTU executive assistant Gwendolyn Hemphill had been told to “take care of” an old bill for T-shirts and other D.C.-voting-rights paraphernalia handed out by Mayor Anthony A. Williams at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. The instructions came from Williams’ chief of staff, Kelvin J. Robinson. In the following Monday’s Post, Robinson explained that he didn’t consider the bill a government expense so he forwarded it to Hemphill, who then served as co-chair of the Williams re-election campaign.
Johnson scooped his colleagues by reporting that Hemphill had paid the bill with WTU money. Back in October, Channel 9 was also first out of the gate with news that Hemphill, WTU President Barbara A. Bullock, and WTU Treasurer James O. Baxter II had resigned after financial irregularities were discovered in the local union’s books. A forensic audit prepared for the WTU’s parent group, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), alleges that the three were participants in a criminal conspiracy that defrauded D.C. teachers of approximately $5 million.
Johnson sure showed LL a thing or two about cultivating sources: Every city-hall reporter in town had been snooping for a connection between the WTU cash and Williams. It was a logical thread to follow: Williams has maintained a cozy relationship with Hemphill and her husband, Lawrence Hemphill, who was handpicked by the mayor to head his Office of Constituent Services. Larry Hemphill has since left D.C. government.
Johnson’s scoop culture seems to have inspired newswriters at the station: “Still to come: more on the Washington Teachers’ Union scandal. Plus a weather exclusive: Is a break in the cold front on the horizon?” Each evening, LL suffers through the oh-so-witty anchor-meteorologist banter—resisting the temptation to click over to D.C. Council hearings, or, er, The Simpsons and Seinfeld reruns—to keep an eye out for the latest 9 News coverage on the WTU monies, Hemphill, and Robinson:
* On Jan. 21, Johnson reported that sources confirmed to him that WTU attorney Curtis Lewis, brother of James Baxter, had hosted fundraisers for the Williams campaigns in 1998 and 2002. The soirees did not show up on any of the campaign’s financial-disclosure reports—which has since prompted an investigation by the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance.
* On Jan. 30, Johnson reported that the WTU had paid part of the tab for a 2000 Christmas party sponsored by the mayor. “The soul-food catering bill was charged to a WTU American Express card, according to our sources, without authorization from teachers or the union executive board,” he reported. “The same sources say a downtown restaurant chain, Au Bon Pain, catered several meetings which the mayor hosted in his offices for advisory neighborhood commissioners.” Those same sources also told Johnson that the bill for coffee and croissants was directed to the WTU.
“The WTU often used B&B [Catering] and paid anywhere from twelve to twenty thousand dollars for their services, according to our source,” reported Johnson in his Feb. 5 “Bruce J’s Notebook” on the Channel 9 Web site.
* Last Monday, Johnson piggybacked on a weekend story in the Post, reporting that sources close to the WTU investigation had informed him that Hemphill spent $20,000 in union funds to pay for a party to welcome Williams’ Chief of Staff Robinson to town. The August 2001 event in Hemphill’s Ward 4 Colonial Village back yard featured approximately 100 members of the city’s political class, barbecue ribs, and a band.
Why does everything that’s bought with WTU dues cost so damn much? By LL’s party-planner calculations, the Robinson shindig ended up about $200 per head. At Kenny’s Smokehouse on Maryland Avenue NE, Hemphill could have gotten ribs, chicken, and three side orders for $6.50 per person.
But that’s not the meat of the matter: The Robinson-party story suggests Hemphill’s willingness to tap WTU funds for Williams administration events. “Sources say the probe is also looking at direct gifts that may have gone to District officials,” Johnson added at the end of the report. The city’s personnel code prohibits those on the public payroll from accepting gifts from those who do business with the D.C. government.
In both TV news coverage and the local dailies, Robinson has said that he never inquired who was paying for the party. Why would he? He was a newcomer to town, a friend of the mayor’s rolled out the red carpet, and he considered it a good opportunity to meet the city’s political players.
Robinson had a few months to go before the 514-page inspector general’s report chronicled the Williams administration’s troubles with parties.
All these stories have relied almost exclusively on “a source” or “sources” or “sources close to the WTU investigation” to provide details linking Williams administration functions to WTU money. So who are these talkative unnamed sources? Here are a few guesses:
1. The U.S. Attorney’s Office
Whenever local reporters deal with a criminal investigation involving the U.S. attorney, they know that spokesperson Channing Phillips will decline to comment. That usually satisfies the get-the-other-side-of-it demand from cantankerous editors. “Because it’s an ongoing investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment any further at this time,” Phillips might add, for a quote.
In the case of the WTU, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI have seized all the union’s financial records, including Amex and bank statements. The Williams campaign has also cooperated with law-enforcement authorities, handing over all kinds of financial documents as well.
If Justice Department attorneys are leaking to Johnson, then LL has another task for the well-connected reporter: Who forged the mayor’s 2002 nominating petitions?
2. The FBI
It takes quite a bit of savvy just to get the G-men to say “No comment.” And with the country on high alert for a terrorist incident, agents might not have time to figure out how many scones the mayor chowed with the ANC-ers.
3. Hemphill attorney Frederick D. Cooke Jr.
Defense lawyers often dish to reporters, hoping to make their opening statements in the court of public opinion. With an FBI seizure list from Hemphill’s house that included a $12,999 flat-screen TV and a forensic audit that estimates Hemphill’s alleged take at nearly $500,000, Cooke has a challenging task, indeed.
When the WTU story broke, Cooke told Channel 9 that his client “had nothing to do with union dues and had no authority to sign union checks.” Cooke has since said that Hemphill is cooperating with authorities.
Cooke also represented Hemphill when she appeared before the Board of Elections and Ethics during the panel’s investigation into the Williams petition debacle. He aggressively objected to some of the board’s questions and was combative at times with petition challengers.
Like Hemphill, Cooke has a significant D.C. political history: He served as corporation counsel under Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and has also been a power lobbyist in the Wilson Building hallways. Unlike Hemphill, according to sources, Cooke didn’t cozy up to Williams, though.
“Fred was looking for someone to run against the mayor [last election],” says one Williams confidant.
4. Gwendolyn Hemphill
When D.C. residents first learned of the WTU allegations, Hemphill had an ally at the Wilson Building. “I stick by my friends,” responded Mayor Williams, referring to his former campaign co-chair. “She’s worked very, very hard for me.”
Then came the FBI seizure list, the forensic audit, and the drip, drip, drip of stories connecting WTU monies to administration-related events. “I am so mad and disgusted. I am sick,” Williams told reporters at his Jan. 29 weekly press conference. “In that people I have trusted…to say people have let me down is a supreme understatement.”
Hemphill’s loyalty to the mayor seems a thing of the past, as well. Who was a source on the T-shirt story? None other than Hemphill, who pointed the finger at Robinson in detailed on-the-record quotes. Robinson defended his actions, saying that when he forwarded the bill to Hemphill he didn’t tell her how to pay for it. What Robinson wants us to assume—though he doesn’t come right out and say it—is that he expected the campaign co-chair to pay for the bill with campaign funds. (Robinson could not be reached for comment.)
Hemphill never expected to appear in the Post bickering with Robinson over T-shirts. When Robinson arrived, Hemphill commandeered the welcome wagon that has now prompted so much attention. She threw the $200-a-head party for two transparent reasons: (1) to prove to Robinson that she was a big-time political player in town, and (2) to prove to all the other big-time players in town that she was buddying up to the mayor’s new chief of staff.
The latter part didn’t work out so well. Williams insiders say that Robinson and Hemphill developed a less-than-chummy relationship. When rumors circulated that Robinson might leave his job to take over the post-petition-scandal campaign, Hemphill phoned several Williams loyalists to argue against the move. She reportedly saw Robinson as a threat to her power base.
Hemphill soon had other worries, though: Around the time the petition debacle occurred, the AFT began investigating a report about an overbilling of union dues at its D.C. affiliate.
The ensuing scandals meant Hemphill’s end as a quiet force in the Wilson Building. Yet like so many behind-the-scenes players before her, she’s still making noise from the confines of her home. She continues to protest her treatment by the press, shield her husband from bad publicity, and, in the case of the T-shirts, point the finger at mayoral aides.
That policy works fine for the Post, LL, and Johnson.
“I’ve been in town a long time, 27 years,” explains Johnson—who says little more about his reporting methods. “I’ve been able to cultivate some very good sources.”
“Every one of these stories has more than one source. At least two,” Johnson adds. “There’s an enormous paper trail. It’s one of the easiest cases that the U.S. attorney has ever had in this town.” CP
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