Laura Smith put on administrative leave as SUSD internal investigation unfolds

SUSD Chief Financial Officer Laura Smith (photo by Scottsdale Schools)

Scottsdale Unified School District Chief Financial Officer Laura Smith has been put on administrative leave pending an ongoing investigation, according to Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell.

In a letter sent to top Scottsdale Unified School District officials on Jan. 24, Dr. Birdwell explained that Ms. Smith has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an ongoing investigation related to an alleged conflict of interest from May 2017.

The alleged conflict of interest arose following the district entering into a monetary agreement with financial firm Professional Group Public Consulting, Inc. — also known as PGPC — of which Ms. Smith is named president and director.

In December 2017, Gust Rosenfeld attorney Susan Segal publicly announced that she was investigating Ms. Smith’s conflict of interest with the district. The PGPC issue is part two of an internal district review of which Ms. Segal was contracted for.

Throughout the course of January 2016 until now, a series of events led to the community questioning the ethics of their district leaders. The straw that broke the camel’s back came in November when Scottsdale resident Loyd Eskildson wrote a guest commentary in the Scottsdale Independent unearthing documents showing contracted professional Brian Robichaux had been convicted of theft, a class 2 felony in Arizona in 1998.

Mr. Robichaux, former-president of Phoenix-based Hunt & Caraway Architects, had been most-recently hired by the district to design elementary schools after the passing of a $229 million bond last November. Hunt & Caraway has been involved with other district projects including athletic field improvements at three high schools.

Mr. Robichaux is not a licensed architect, Ms. Segal says, although he represented himself as one at least twice in district settings.

Scottsdale Unified School District has little-to-no evidence of wrongdoing in their procurement practices, attorney Ms. Segal told district leaders on Dec. 19.

Ms. Segal, a partner at local law firm Gust Rosenfeld, was hired to perform an internal review into the district’s procurement practices after myriad allegations and questions surfaced in recent months.

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office also has an on-going investigations into the practices of Scottsdale Unified School District. No update on the AG’s investigation was available as of Monday, Jan. 22, spokeswoman Mia Garcia told the Independent.

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.

Mr. Robichaux, then-Hunt & Caraway’s principal, 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.

In October 2017, a community group then coined, “United Scottsdale” claimed Ms. Smith was unqualified to hold her position within the district, suggesting she did not hold the proper qualifications for the position held.

Documents provided to the Independent allege:

  • Ms. Smith has a degree in Elementary Education from Arizona State University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Texas;
  • The SUSD Chief Financial Officer position requires a Master’s Degree in Business Administration and a CPA is preferred;
  • Ms. Smith signed a conflict of interest disclosure on May 3, 2017, describing herself as part owner of the company, which provides consulting services to the district “from time to time;” and
  • A May 26, 2017, purchase order was issued to PGPC described as a “Blanket PO” for on-site procurement consulting services and purchase department training.

Ms. Smith joined the Scottsdale school district on Feb. 15, 2017, records show.

The next part of Ms. Segal’s findings, which are to include the findings on PGPC, have not been scheduled yet. SUSD Public Information Officer Erin Helm said in a Jan. 23 email to the Independent that she expects the presentation to be later than expected, and in February sometime.

Shannon Crosier, position control and budget manager, will be taking Ms. Smith’s spot during the investigation, Dr. Birdwell’s letter noted.

“As this is a personnel matter, we will not comment further until the process is complete,” Dr. Birdwell said in the internal memo.

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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