Arizona Attorney General’s Office files suit against Scottsdale Schools

A view of one of the many Scottsdale Unified School District school sites. (File photo)

The Arizona Attorney General’s office has filed a civil lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court Thursday, Feb. 22, requesting to halt the ongoing construction at Hohokam Elementary School and Cheyenne Traditional School.

The court filing comes on the heels of a months-long investigation into allegations of wrong doing on behalf of Scottsdale Schools officials.

“We filed our civil lawsuit against Scottsdale Unified School District this morning,” Arizona Attorney General’s Office Spokesperson Mia Garcia confirmed in a Feb. 22 email to the Independent.

“We are asking a court to: stop construction, order the district to re-bid the project, and order the firm to return the money they received from the district.”

In addition, the Attorney General’s office is requesting the court enter judgment against the defendants on matters including:

  • Ordering the construction and related services contracts for the Hohokam and Cheyenne projects be voided;
  • Ordering SUSD to re-bid the construction and related services contracts for the Hohokam and Cheyenne projects;
  • Ordering defendants to restore all money and property acquired by any unlawful means or practices alleged;
  • Ordering defendants to pay the state of Arizona its cost of investigation and prosecution of this matter, including attorneys’ fees; and
  • Ordering such other relief as the court deems just and proper.

The defendants listed include: Scottsdale Unified School District, Hunt & Caraway Architects, LTD., and Brian Robichaux.

The court filing stems from apparent procurement violations that occurred in connection with SUSD’s bid process for construction projects specifically at Hohokam and Cheyenne, the document states.

The Scottsdale Unified School District’s Superintendent, Dr. Denise Birdwell was placed on temporary paid administrative leave on Wednesday, Feb. 21, following a five-hour Governing Board Executive Session meeting.

Two other senior administrators have resigned amid the Arizona Attorney General’s investigation, which was first confirmed last November, and a district internal review.

Former Chief Financial Officer Laura Smith gave her resignation on Friday, Jan. 26. Chief Operations Officer Louis Hartwell’s resignation was accepted by the Governing Board in a 5-0 vote on Wednesday, Feb. 21. His resignation is effective June 30.

Hunt & Caraway Architects is the lead firm working with the district since — and before — a $229 million bond approval in November 2016.

Plans for work to be done at Cheyenne Traditional School, 13636 N. 100th St., were first publicly displayed in May 2017 at a Governing Board meeting.

Tom O’Neil, education leader at Orcutt Winslow, presented improvement outlines at Cheyenne, Independent records show. In January 2017 the Governing Board unanimously approved renovations to begin at Cheyenne to include classroom space, gymnasium, front office and parking lot renovations at an estimated cost of $7.6 million.

Hohokam Elementary School, 8451 E. Oak St., was one of the first schools to be short-listed for a complete rebuild. The Hohokam project has been put on hold, according to a Jan. 23, 2018 post to the school district website.

Community concerns

Questions began to sprout within the Hopi Elementary School community earlier this fall when the school was set to begin a complete tear-down and rebuild.

At a September meeting, a room full of school parents and neighbors voiced their disapproval for the proposed school design and the process in which the rebuild was being handled.

Audience members at an SUSD meeting look on as Brian Robichaux and Tamara Caraway, pictured far left, present school rebuild plans in 2016. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Hunt & Caraway Architects Principal Brian Robichaux had been leading the charge on Hopi’s redesign. Paperwork shows the firm was first hired by the district in April 2016 to work on a “facilities master plan” prior to the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board approving the bond ballot initiative.

District documents, Arizona Corporation Commission files and procurement records show that neither Hunt & Caraway nor Orcutt-Winslow went through a public SUSD procurement process, but rather were approved through a Phoenix-based national cooperative, 1 Government Procurement Alliance in 2016.

1 Government Procurement Alliance — also known as 1GPA — is a nonprofit national governmental purchasing cooperative that allows public agencies to take advantage of existing contracts to purchase the goods and services they need from local and national vendors, according to a Request for Qualifications document dated Jan. 14, 2016.

Records posted to 1GPA.org illustrate an architectural services RFQ for the state of Arizona, and SUSD was designated as the lead agency for the procurement.

Scottsdale resident Loyd Eskildson revealed in a Nov. 13 letter to the Independent, that court records show Mr. Robichaux was charged with felony theft in 1998, and a final judgment was signed on 2004.

In State of Arizona v. Brian A. Robichaux, Arizona Superior Court records show Mr. Robichaux obtained $125,653 from the Arizona Department of Transportation for the purpose of building a home for Flora Mae Baptisto Phillips, but used the money for other, unauthorized purposes.

Mr. Robichaux plead guilty to count one, theft, a class 4 felony.

Between Nov. 5, 1996 and March 15, 1997, Mr. Robichaux is accused of illegally taking funds from ADOT, when he was contracted to build a house for Ms. Phillips on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation for families displaced by Loop 101. A total of 70 houses were to be built.

Attorney General’s filing

The Attorney General’s court filing lists a series of factual allegations.

Hunt & Caraway was selected on or about April 2016 by SUSD as the district’s architecture firm for future SUSD construction projects related to the bond. The school district specifically chose Hunt & Caraway for their experience in school construction, the document states.

The school district used a Construction Manager at Risk — also known as CMAR — committee system for ranking and selecting construction bids for certain projects financed by the 2016 bond, including Cheyenne and Hohokam.

Upon information and belief, the court filings state:

  • A CMAR committee meeting was scheduled on Tuesday, April 25, 2017, with the purpose of evaluating and ranking construction firms for the Hohokam and Cheyenne projects;
  • The firms under consideration at the meeting were: CORE Construction, Chasse Building Team, and McCarthy Building Companies, Inc.;
  • Prior to the start of the April 25 meeting, Mr. Robichaux made a phone call to one of the other members of the SUSD CMAR committee relating to the upcoming meeting;
  • During that phone call, Mr. Robichaux explained that he would like to see the construction vendors for the projects under consideration ranked in a specific order;
  • An employee of PGPC coordinated the SUSD CMAR committee discussion, handed out packets, and provided instructions for consideration and ranking of the vendors;
  • Approximately one hour was allotted to consider each construction proposal;
  • There was no discussion of creating a “short list” at the meeting;
  • No vendors were chosen to interview in connection with the review an ranking of proposals;
  • Despite the length of the proposals, one of the committee members finished their review in approximately 15 minutes;
  • Certain members of the committee believed SUSD would not award projects to McCarthy because former superintendent Dr. David Peterson now worked there;
  • These members of the committee will ranked McCarthy third, rather than disqualifying McCarthy due to conflict of interest;

Ultimately, CORE was given the award for the Hohokam project; and Chasse was awarded for the Cheyenne project.

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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