Leaders of the D.C. Democratic Party are discussing a graceful way for Executive Director Gwendolyn M. Hemphill to resign as a federal investigation continues into charges of misspending funds from the Washington Teachers Union.
“I think many members feel that she should resign amidst everything that has happened, but no one wants to say it publicly,” said Philip Pannell, president of the Ward 8 Democrats.
Mrs. Hemphill who holds an unpaid, part-time post with the city’s Democratic Party was forced to quit in the fall as an executive assistant with the Washington Teachers Union. Former union President Barbara A. Bullock and former union Treasurer James O. Baxter II also stepped down under pressure.
The trio was accused of spending union funds for a raft of personal items, according to an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in the District.
The FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, the Labor Department and the D.C. inspector general are investigating accusations that the three misappropriated $2 million. The inquiry began after the union’s parent, the American Federation of Teachers, audited the books in response to complaints about members being overcharged on dues. No formal charges have been filed.
Mrs. Hemphill resigned in September as co-chairman of Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ re-election campaign after the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics forced him to run a write-in campaign in the Democratic primary. The board cited thousands of forgeries among the mayor’s nominating petitions.
D.C. Democratic Party Chairman Norman Neverson insisted that members have not lost faith in Mrs. Hemphill and will not act against her, even though her most recent troubles hindered her ability to raise money for the party.
“As I understand it, there has been no indictment for anyone, and we will not take any action unless these issues are substantiated by a legal entity. We would be shortsighted to ask her to step down,” Mr. Neverson said.
Mr. Pannell said that many party members do not want to be seen as “kicking someone when they’re down.”
The D.C. Democratic State Committee could remove Mrs. Hemphill from her post as an elected at-large member of the panel by getting petition signatures from 10 percent of the city’s registered Democrats. The executive committee also could adopt a resolution asking her to resign as executive director.
An FBI affidavit and search warrant executed last month accused Mrs. Hemphill, Miss Bullock and Mr. Baxter of using union credit cards to go on personal spending sprees, overcharging teachers for union dues and siphoning off funds by writing checks to themselves, and using family and other associates to launder the money.
During a raid of Mrs. Hemphill’s home, investigators seized numerous luxury items, including several works from the Ramee Art Gallery, an Onkyo CD player and stereo system, Herrend china, a fur coat and a $13,000 Panasonic flat-screen plasma television, all believed to have been bought with union funds.
Mrs. Hemphill’s annual union salary was $66,950, according to paperwork filed by the union with the Labor Department in 2001. Miss Bullock’s salary was $106,840 and Mr. Baxter’s was $55,709.
Officials in the U.S. Attorney’s Office said that they would not discuss matters pertaining to a grand jury. But they did say that evidence is mounting as the investigation proceeds and that some action can be expected early this year.
None of the Democratic committees in city wards has taken a position on the matter, but several activists told The Washington Times that they believe Mrs. Hemphill is not guilty.
“I support her and what she has done for the party,” Mr. Neverson said. “The party would be extremely impoverished without Gwen’s outreach. She has a 30-year history of dedication in this city and to the party.”
Mrs. Hemphill whose husband, Lawrence Hemphill, works for the mayor’s community affairs office has held her position with the party committee since she was appointed by Mr. Neverson during the 2000 presidential campaign. Mr. Neverson credits her with strengthening the party’s influence and fund raising.
Her party position made her an easy choice for Mr. Williams, who hired her in the spring to help run his re-election campaign. But by midsummer, the campaign was in a shambles. More than 5,000 of the 10,000 signatures on the mayor’s nominating petitions were found to be forgeries.
Mrs. Hemphill initially was blamed for the forgeries, but the elections board and the U.S. Attorney’s Office later held her not responsible, said her attorney, Fred C. Cooke Jr.
In 1984, Mrs. Hemphill, as Mayor Marion Barry’s special assistant for organized labor, fell three months behind on mortgage payments for the $200,000 house she shared with her husband in Rock Creek Park.
The Hemphills qualified for $4,044 in emergency assistance from the welfare division of the D.C. Department of Human Services, despite a combined annual income of more than $77,000.
Ten months later, the couple bought a $12,000 Peugeot, saying that a relative helped pay for it.