- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

All in all, 2002 was a good year for Washington, D.C. One of the best compasses? Just look around. The physical landscape of this city of magnificent intentions continues to change for the better, although that certainly doesn't mean all's well inside or outside City Hall.

The political landscape, on the other hand, remains the same, which portends an up and a down side for taxpayers, the bread and the butter of the city's tax base. Indeed in November, D.C. voters granted every nod that matters to incumbents from congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mayor Tony Williams, to the perennials on the D.C. Council and the school board. However, while that Election Day message clearly spelled V-I-C-T-O-R-Y for the politicians, it could spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E for some of those same officeholders.

High-level officials at the Washington Teachers Union stand accused of bilking union members of more than $2 million. The FBI raided homes and offices, and has developed an incredible paper trail that leads to that money being spent on tailor-made clothing and exclusive goodies from Tiffany, as well as furs, fine art and big-ticket home furnishings. There were expensive wig purchases, too (the better to hide the no-brainer?). The IRS and D.C. tax officials have yet to tally their score-cards.

The news of this disgusting series of events led one schoolteacher to file suit against the union. He wants a judge to issue a restraining order on the union, fearing not only on-the-job retaliation but further looting by the union.

Can't blame the man. The federal judge in whose hands his case rests, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, has scheduled a Jan. 21 court date. Meanwhile, as the wait-see plays out in the teacher's federal case, imagine what's going on behind doors in City Hall.

Scrambling. Who gave what to whom and how much? Should the money be returned?

My quick tally says the mayor and several council members are in unenviable positions. The mayor, in particular, is in a most precarious spot.

First starters, one of the union's accused, Gwendolyn Hemphill, was co-chairman of the mayor's 2002 run for the Democratic primary. What started out as a shoo-in for him, with a million-plus war chest and no worthy opponents, ended up as a write-in campaign because his campaign had failed to generate enough legitimate signatures to place his name on the Democratic primary ballot. An investigation into whether there was any criminal wrongdoing is ongoing.

Second, Mrs. Hemphill and her husband gave at least $3,000 to the Committee to Re-elect Tony Williams as individual donors.

Third, Mrs. Hemphill's husband, Lawrence, is a D.C. government employee who also is implicated in the union scandal. According to the FBI affidavit, one of the questionable items Mrs. Hemphill purchased with her union credit card is a $13,000, 50-inch plasma television that was "delivered directly to Hemphill's residence," where Mr. Hemphill paid more than $2,000 to have it installed. The mayor said this week that Mr. Hemphill, director of community outreach, has been placed on administrative leave.

Fourth, The Washington Times reported yesterday that Mrs. Hemphill has stepped down as executive director of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, of which the mayor is titular leader.

The FBI affidavit implicates other people, too, including the Hemphills' daughter and son-in-law.

Now, as the FBI, IRS and U.S. Attorney's office carry out their respective responsibilities, here's hoping D.C. authorities do, too.

Because, since the IRS has suspicions, D.C. tax officials should as well. Since federal prosecutors suspect fraud and embezzlement, the D.C. Inspector General and the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, which investigated the mayor's election petition case, should, too. In fact, every current officeholder who received donations from the Washington Teachers Union and anyone named in the FBI affidavit should return the money. I don't need to name all the names because the mayor, Council members Sandy Allen, Andrian Fenty, Harold Brazil, Phil Mendelson and Carol Schwartz, as well as school board member William Lockridge know they received campaign donations from the union and/or people named in the affidavit.

I hope since guilt, even by association, is a troubling perception that small-town Washington can ill afford that they have already ordered that the money be returned.

And scandals? Well, there are scandals, and then there are scandals du jour. And the 1980s and '90s were riddled with both of them.

The teachers union thing will play into next year's elections. That is why it is important that the mayor step back in the midst of this latest one and let the officials that he himself hired do their jobs.

It would be in his and the city's best interests.

After all, some of Tony Williams' most regrettable fumbles were at the hands of his, ahem, closest advisers.

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